Thursday, March 31, 2011

Quick Takes: Win Win

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The new film from director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) is an unassuming, crowd-pleasing little gem – though not without its darker moments - that deserves to rise above the glut of lackluster spring releases clogging up theaters these days and find a welcoming audience. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, think you will too and urge you to go see it. Unfortunately, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it was on a paltry 23 screens this past week! Today it expands to a whopping 149 screens. How’s that for quality distribution? (For more on the subject see my companion post: A Win Win Situation?)

Similar to Mr. McCarthy’s two previous films, Win Win (2011) offers up a riff on the age-old theme: “don’t judge a book by its cover.” He has a knack for commingling characters from disparate walks of life – different cultures, different socio-economic backgrounds, different generations, etc. – and then forces them to come to terms with each other in
a way that underscores our collective humanity. There are no superheroes here, no effects, nothing even remotely showy; this is a modest, down-the-line character study that’s so intimate and honestly observed, so authentic feeling in its depiction of a rural East Coast middle-class lifestyle, and so effortless in its evocation of the trials and tribulations of mundane everyday life that I was warmed to the core.

Paul Giamatti, in yet another deft, deeply empathetic embodiment of the average schlub, anchors the film as Mike Flaherty, a small town New Jersey lawyer/high school wrestling coach who makes one bad, desperate decision and does his best to manage the fallout. Feeling the financial squeeze of our times, Mike takes on the legal guardianship of an aging client, Leo Poplar (Burt Young), whose mental capacity is slowly fading, in order to collect an extra $1,500 a month in income from Leo’s wealthy Estate. But Mike then shuffles him off to an assisted-living facility against his true wishes. When Leo’s grandson shows up, whose very existence Leo is unaware of, things get interesting.

Amy Ryan is wonderfully forthright as Mike’s wife and newcomer Alex Shaffer dazzles (in an incredibly naturalistic debut performance that’s aided by expert editing) as the wayward teen who's thrust into their lives. The less you know about it going in the better, but the movie is funny and tender, tragic when it needs to be and the execution is near flawless. I don't think it ever misses a beat. Jeffrey Tambor, Melanie Lynskey, and Margo Martindale round out the cast.

A special mention needs to be reserved for Bobby Cannavale who, as Mike’s best friend, Terry, takes your typical comic relief supporting role and colors it in with infectious energy and surprising hidden depths. Cannavale steals every scene he's in. Terry, a recent, heartbroken divorcé, maintains a cheerleader’s personality - he’s a dear friend who selflessly pumps up the confidence of those around him – but, to manage his inner emptiness, he takes pleasure in living vicariously through others. He’s the kind of boisterous lovable misfit you feel like you’ve known all your life, or at least have encountered and remember fondly. It’s a deliciously satisfying treat of a performance. I repeat: see this movie! 4/5

Spotlight: Kevin Pollak's Chat Show

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When I think of Kevin Pollak, I think character actor extraordinaire. Dozens of movies come to mind. A Few Good Men. Avalon. Indian Summer. The Usual Suspects. Casino. Deterrence. In fact, his body of work screams for a 5 Best piece. He's a welcome presence in many, many movies. Pollak is also a gifted comedian and one of the best impressionists I've had the pleasure of seeing, both live and on TV specials.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this little gem a few months ago. Kevin Pollak's Chat Show is a weekly talk show that features Pollak and his guest swapping anecdotes and riffing about the joys and frustrations of being a working member of the Hollywood industry. The show is heavily influenced by Charlie Rose and Tom Snyder in that Pollak provides an intimate setting with 2 hours of unfiltered conversation. No commercial interruptions. No censorship. No shilling for their latest projects. These are genuine, frank conversations between an insightful, well-informed host and celebrities from all walks of the entertainment world. I can never watch Leno and Letterman again. Pollak allows his guests to really open up.

The Chat Show premiered on the web in March of 2009. To date, he's had over 100 guests on the show, ranging from Henry Winkler to Eddie Izzard to Martin Mull to Billy Bob Thornton. My personal favorites: Jason Reitman is refreshingly candid about being an up-and-coming director under the shadow of his famous father, Ivan. Neil Patrick Harris, at the height of his busy career, stops in to talk about his new twin boys and his revolving workload in movies, TV and on stage. Director Mike Binder chats with Kevin about their experiences working together on Indian Summer. JK Simmons, who played Colonel Jessup in the original Broadway run of A Few Good Men, swaps stories about Aaron Sorkin and the differences between stage and film. Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow, in separate conversations, share hilarious anecdotes about their experiences on Friends. Jason Lee talks in depth about his life before becoming an actor. Titus Welliver talks about Boston, his respected stage career and Lost. Other memorable conversations with Kevin: Leonard Maltin, Paul Rudd, Kevin Smith, Bradley Whitford, Nathan Fillion, Colin Hanks, Lauren Graham.

His impressive catalogue continues to grow. I am eagerly anticipating his upcoming chats with Damon Lindelof, Rob Reiner and Eugene Levy. With the lengthy running time of his conversations, Pollak allows himself to tap into the creative energy of these fascinating and talented artists.

Not everything works, though. Pollak plays the Larry King Game with his guests, which was funny at first but has grown tiresome since. He urges the guest to 1) Make a bad Larry King impression, 2) Have Larry reveal something on the air that shouldn't have been said, and 3) go to the phones, ending with a funny-sounding city. King is now retired, so Pollak should do the same with the Game. Who Tweeted?, another game he plays with the guest, is a time waster that is never funny. Only 3 Degrees of Kevin Pollak is consistently amusing, but unfortunately it makes a sporadic appearance on his shows. His Ask Kevin segments and riffing with his usually off-camera sidekicks, Jaime and Samm, are mildly entertaining. No doubt, the show's strongest suit is the always the main event: Pollak and his guest.

The show is available on iTunes and on his website - http://www.kevinpollakschatshow.com/. You can listen to its audio-only podcast, or watch the videos. The show works very well both ways. New episodes are free, and the archived ones are divvied into seasons which can be purchased for a small fee. KPCS is easily worth your time and investment.

Thanks for reading. Now... get out of my face.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quick Takes: Morning Glory, Due Date

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The ever-adorable Rachel McAdams owns Morning Glory (2010), the latest film from the talented Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes). She plays a workaholic daytime TV producer whose life revolves solely around her career. Becky Fuller loves her line of work. She's one of those rare people who does exactly what they dreamed of growing up. She has no time for love, though the film does offer her a romantic tease in the form of Patrick Wilson. But the film does not dwell on that. Morning Glory is refreshingly not a rom-com in the traditional sense. Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford play seasoned anchors who give McAdams a hard time, while Jeff Goldblum is a welcome sight as her boss. Keaton doesn't have much to do, and I'm getting a little tired of Ford's trademark scowling and gruffness. But they both come through, veteran performers that they are. Make no mistake, though, it's McAdams's show all the way. She's the real star of this charming and funny movie. 3.5/5

Due Date (2010) just baffles me. I don't know what to make of it. I did not like the characters. The material is paper thin. The third act goes off the rails. It's overlong, even at 95 minutes. It made me miss Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Badly. But damn it all to hell -- I laughed. Out loud. Many times!! And I really hated myself for it. I have to give a lot of that credit to Robert Downey, Jr. Despite playing such an unlikeable brute, his comic timing and delivery is, as always, impeccable. Zach Galifianakis, a tiresome and grating presence, even made me chuckle too. Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride and Jamie Foxx are all welcome distractions from these mostly obnoxious guys. I don't like you, Due Date. But thanks for the laughs. 2.5/5

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The 5 Best: Sterling Hayden

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Sterling Hayden is my personal favorite old school silver screen brooding brute. At 6 foot 5 inches and with that ruggedly handsome face he must have been an imposing figure to behold in person. His screen personas always had the benefit of his magnificent stature. He mostly played tough guys, cut from that certain mid-20th century American cloth, though unlike some actors of the era who were pussycats off-screen, Hayden (at least according to his IMDB bio) was an out-an-out badass; a man’s man to be sure. He was at one time or another: an accomplished seaman and ship’s captain, an OSS agent, a trained commando, a U.S. Marine and a gun-runner during WWII.

By all accounts Sterling seems to have hated acting, doing it to pick up a paycheck here and there, but harboring great personal contempt for the profession. He would rather have been out adventuring. Still, despite this fact, Sterling Hayden has left an indelible mark on our cinematic past, turning in a slew of standout performances in what have come to be heralded as some of America’s finest films. And yes, OK, I can already hear you giving me sh*t for not including Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) on my list. Duly noted.


Crime Wave (1954) / dir. André De Toth

Hayden’s dogged, straighter-than-an-arrow Dt. Lt. Sims helped inspire the character of Bud White in James Ellroy’s masterpiece crime novel, L.A. Confidential. Admittedly it’s a bit of a stiff performance, but Hayden chews the scenery with near reckless abandon, delivering his lines with the ferocity of a pit bull and speed of a Tommy Gun, which makes for great pulp noir viewing. A must for fans of the genre!


The Asphalt Jungle (1950) /

dir. John Houston

Dix Handley serves as “the muscle” component in Doc Riedenschneider’s (Oscar® nominee Sam Jaffe) ragtag group of doomed thieves. Dix is a good ole country boy gone rotten, suffocating on the fumes and oppression of the big city, taken to a life of petty crime, eking out his living on the fringes trying to earn enough dough to buy back his family’s farm. Hayden plays him with a cool front of down-to-business stoicism and just-under-the-surface vulnerability; his most tragic role.


The Killing (1956) / dir. Stanley Kubrick

Hayden anchors Kubrick’s precision clockwork caper film as Johnny Clay, mastermind of a breathless race track heist and a desperate pawn caught by the rip currents of fate in its unraveling aftermath.



The Godfather (1972) /

dir. Francis Ford Coppola

In what amounts to little more than an extended cameo, Hayden doles out a memorable bit of gruff masculinity with his deeply corrupt McCluskey, the New York City police Captain in Sollozzo’s pocket. After breaking Michael Corleone’s jaw, Sterling graciously takes one in the neck and one in the forehead in the most famous scene from one of the most famous and beloved movies in American film history.


The Long Goodbye (1973) / dir. Robert Altman

Hayden, bearded and bloated, growls, barks and boozes his way through Altman’s hazy L.A. noir (adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel) as Hemmingway-esque author, Roger Wade. He’s a hollowed out giant at the end of his rope whose trophy wife (played as a sultry, slightly hippie, blonde beach chic by Nina Van Pallandt) just may be the film’s femme fatale. I love the way Wade, even after being corrected several times, affectionately refers to Elliot Gould’s mostly clueless private dick, Philip Marlowe, as the Marlboro man. It’s a glorious grand-standing performance, but one that’s filled with heart, soul and deep empathy for the character’s painfully careening out of control desperation. It might be Sterling Hayden’s finest hour – he’s certainly all-in.

The Hits Just Keep on Comin'

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Sometime in the middle of the night last night, our little blog had its 1000th hit. About three-quarters of those hits are from the States, but we've had some visitors from Canada, Denmark, the U.K., New Zealand, even Malaysia! Clearly, our site is not for all tastes, but most visitors are most likely lovers of the cinema. And that's who we are. We love movies. We love great television. That's the common thread that links us with millions of people across the world.

It's hard to believe that it was only two and a half months ago when I decided to start Flickers. It began as a little side project, a venue in which I can make public about my life-long affair with the movies. I didn't care if no one read it. I just couldn't hide it anymore. Movies are in my bloodstream, it's a part of me. Flickers was my way of showing appreciation to all of those hard workers in the film and television industry. Directors, writers, editors, cinematographers, actors, casting agents, scorers, grips, that guy who holds the boom mike. It was a way of saying thank you for providing such enlightening and dazzling storytelling, breathtaking images and indelible characters. The worlds you created in these works of art are vivid and rich.

No movie is perfect, of course. But we criticize because we love. You will be hard-pressed to find cynicism on Flickers. We're not going to lash out on why Hollywood is too greedy, why commerce too often trumps quality, why Jennifer Aniston continues to make bad movies. No. We want to focus on what works, what makes us feel good. Flickers is a place where we share our thoughts on the things that move us. Sure, we believe in tough love, but mostly, we're just smitten with this stuff.

I'm thrilled to have my partner in crime on board. I've known Pete for over 15 years. He and I share the same passion for film and, not surprisingly, we agree on quite a bit. But we created that Second Opinion column for a reason. Expect some head butts along the way.

As the site continues to build and grow, I hope more people interact with us through the comments. Share your thoughts. Share the love. There is certainly a lot of it to go around.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spotlight: Merritt Wever on Nurse Jackie

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For those who have yet to discover the pleasures of Showtime’s superb ½-hour comedy/drama series, Nurse Jackie, you are missing out on one of the great supporting performances on television. I’m speaking of Merritt Wever and her scene-stealing portrayal of Jackie’s plucky, colorful pattern scrub-wearing young protégé, Zoey Barkow. Zoey is a stock character for this type of medical show; she’s the slightly naive, innocent ER newbie who provides zany comic relief while learning the ropes from Emmy® winner Edie Falco’s seasoned, jaded, no-nonsense, drug-addicted, but damn-god-at-her-job, Nurse Jackie.

Zoey is the kind of quirky character that could so easily be over-played and quickly spiral into caricature, or be under-played and get lost amidst the show’s excellent ensemble (which includes Eve Best, Paul Schulze, a hilarious Peter Facinelli and Anna Deavere Smith), but Merritt Wever, in a full body performance of impeccably well-timed mannerisms and affectations, imbues her with heartfelt empathy, kindness and admirable do-gooder gusto. Zoey is a wholly unique creation – at once supremely confident and yet deeply unsure of herself. She desperately wants to please those around her in the workplace, but she has no reservations when it comes to raining down her own particular brand of bubbly sunshine on her all-too-serious and sour co-workers. She’s uncertain of her skill set, but uncompromising in her character and how she approaches life. And when push comes to shove (mostly), Zoey has proved to be an exceptional young medical professional.

So, check out Nurse Jackie and all hail Merritt Wever as she continues to reach heights that are deeply human and comedically sublime.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quick Takes: Greenberg, The Fighter

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A relatively light week in movie-watching with two very solid rentals.

First up was Noah Baumbach's best film yet: Greenberg (2010). It's an unusual drama about Roger, a man with behavioral issues (not entirely unlike Asperger's) who tries to stop living in the past. No one likes him. He's abrasive, selfish, impulsive, and many are not afraid to tell him. But one woman, a free-spirited caretaker named Florence, warms up to him and the two form an unlikely bond. Ben Stiller, in a welcome departure, is remarkable as Roger, a character so polarizing that the film could have sunk if handled carelessly. Greta Gerwig is a revelation as Florence; she finds the right balance of assertiveness and naïveté. It's a charming performance. Greenberg is a smart, engaging little film, also featuring strong supporting work from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rhys Ifans. 3.5/5

The Fighter (2010), a Best Picture nominee and box office crowd-pleaser, is a stunning showcase for Christian Bale. It's a fantastic, visceral performance, well-deserving of the win. Amy Adams was much more heartbreaking to me than Melissa Leo; Adams really sold that tough-as-nails bravado and her scene with Bale on the street toward the end was as strong as anything she's ever done. It's a very good film, especially in the last act, as Bale, Leo and Adams got the chance to step back and see how they were damaging Micky Ward. The kid was torn apart - he had loyalties to every single one of them. Wahlberg fully commits himself to the role of Micky, but unfortunately was overshadowed by his showy supporting cast. The Fighter, while not exactly Best Picture material for me, was a nice stretch for the talented David O. Russell. 3.5/5

Welcome to… A Second Opinion

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Greetings film lovers from across the blogosphere! And welcome to the “A Second Opinion” column. Please allow me to introduce myself: my name is PETE (amateur blogger and opinionated film enthusiast) and I’ve known DAVE, and have had the pleasure of arguing movies with him, for a very long time. You can consider me something of a darker, more bitter, more jaded, less forgiving distant cousin – a yin to his yang; or, if you will, a Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll… you get the point.

Actually, to be completely honest, we agree quite often – much more often than not. When Netflix still had a “Friends” feature and we could compare ratings our tastes ran concurrent about 80% of the time. However, I think some of the films that we cherish most deeply and champion the loudest (or conversely, deride the loudest) tend to be very different, hence the birth of this column. Also, having a playful discourse helps keep us both honest.

Well, dear reader, I think the most important thing when encountering a new opinion (especially when it comes to movies) is to know exactly where that person is coming from; that way you can gauge your tastes against theirs and know if their opinion means a damn to you or not. For instance, I tend to agree with Roger Ebert most of the time, probably eight or nine times out of ten. He’s my go-to critic. If he likes something, it’s likely worth my time. If he passionately recommends something, I know I need to seek it out. So I say: Know Your Critic!

To that end, here’s where I stand… my five favorite filmmakers (currently) are: Oliver Stone, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Quentin Tarantino. I also really admire James Cameron, Wes Anderson, Werner Herzog, Patrice Leconte, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Mann. I prefer Star Wars over Star Trek, Temple over Raiders (though it’s painfully close), Casino over Goodfellas, and Harry Potter over LOTR. My favorite genre is crime films – both modern and also classic film noir. My all time favorite film is JFK. Some other favorites, in no particular order: Aliens, The Untouchables, L.A. Confidential, Almost Famous, Wonder Boys, T2, Boogie Nights, Chinatown, The Asphalt Jungle, and Natural Born Killers. Oh, and I’m a complete sucker for, and admirer of, great cinematography.

Don’t necessarily trust my opinion when it comes to comedy. It’s probably my least favorite genre and I’ve been told repeatedly that my tastes are both off and also too narrow. I don’t have a very open mind when it comes to laughs. That said, the funniest things ever are: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show.

I do believe in a star rating system as a useful way to discuss and evaluate films. When I submit a review it will contain one of the following designations:

1/5 stars – total offensive sh*t and a complete waste of my time; the filmmakers should be ashamed.

2/5 stars – mostly forgettable crap, but with some redeeming characteristic such as a good performance, good effects or a well executed set-piece.

3/5 stars – most movies, for me, fall into this category. Good, but not great. If it’s reasonably well-made, entertaining and passes the time effectively then I’m glad I saw it and it did its job. If you see it you won’t be sorry, but if you miss it it’s not the end of the world.

4/5 stars – a very, very good film, worthy of a second viewing and usually stimulating on multiple levels. A don’t miss.

5/5 stars – I don’t dole this one out lightly. It’s reserved only for the very best films I’ve ever seen – films that are transcendent in their ability to transport me to other worlds on a deeply spiritual level. These are the movies that I love.

To conclude, dear reader, now that I’ve wined and dined you on my personal tastes, we may commence our relationship.

Or as Lena Leonard once said to Barry Egan, “So, here we go…”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Defense Of: Joe Versus The Volcano

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"... Only a few people are awake and live in a state of constant, total amazement."

I have what I like to call "swiss cheese" memory. Some things I remember, some things I don't. Seeing Joe Versus The Volcano (1990) for the first time is what I consider a turning point in my young life. It was an event I remember vividly.

It was Friday night and spring was in the air. I was 13 and my mom had dropped me off to the movies with a group of friends. It was opening night and the theater was packed. It was so crowded, in fact, we were forced to sit in the second row. From the moment the movie started, I was transfixed. Mesmerized. My friends were growing restless and goofing off, throwing popcorn, gabbing. I was just lost in the movie.

When it ended, they all gave their unanimous two word review: It sucked. When I spoke up, I said, "I, umm, actually liked it." They all looked at me, their faces scrunched up. "Really?"

And so it began. My tastes were venturing away from the mainstream and I began liking movies that had a bit of an edge to it, movies that weren't exactly run of the mill. Maybe that was the night I became a cinephile. (Needless to say, I don't think I hung out with this group much longer).

I don't remember exactly what it was I loved about Joe Versus The Volcano when I was 13 years old, but I rewatched it again in high school, college and the years that followed, eventually wearing out the VHS. I bought the DVD when that became available and if I had a blu-ray player today, I'd probably own a copy of this one. Each viewing gave me something more to appreciate about it. In fact, it was Roger Ebert who said, "Every great movie should seem like new every time you see it." (He gave this movie 3.5 stars so he could've been talking about this one.)

Joe Versus The Volcano is about a man who is stuck. Joe has a dead end job that drains the life out of him day after day, or better yet, the "zombie lights sucks the juice out of my eyeballs!" He practically sleepwalks to work every single damn day. He simply has no purpose.

One day, at a visit with his doctor, Joe discovers that he has a "brain cloud" and only a few months to live. When he gets the opportunity to finally do something with his life, to make life really matter, he grabs the chance.

"You have some time left, Mr. Banks. You have some life left. My advice to you is this: live it well."

So, he quits his job (in a hilariously dramatic fashion) and begins his transformative journey to - what else? - save the Waponi-Wu island from sinking by making the ultimate sacrifice: jump in the Big Woo, their volcano.

What a long, life-affirming journey it is for Joe Banks.

The spiritual symbolism in the film gives the film much surprising depth. You've got your basic elements of heaven and hell, life and death. Water and fire make major appearances here, typically representing the birth and death of Joe Banks. See, Joe Versus the Volcano is not really a movie about a man who quits his job and jumps in a volcano. It's about a man who searches for the meaning of life. The characters and obstacles he comes across on his journey represent good and evil, and the path of righteousness is never a straight line. The crooked lightning symbol that appears several times in the film is reflective of the path that which Joe begins his soul-repairing adventure.

First, Joe meets Marshall (a sublime Ossie Davis), a limo driver who makes sure Joe is well-prepared. Marshall is essentially a guardian angel, feeding Joe knowledge and tools that will be necessary for a successful trip. Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), the devil incarnate who orchestrated the whole adventure in an effort to profit from Joe's depression, sends him off to Waponi-Wu island, enlisting his nefarious daughter Angelica (Meg Ryan) to ensure Joe's path is not steered off-course. Joe resists the temptations of Angelica and instead falls for her sister Patricia (also Ryan), who is troubled by her own deal she made with her father. Together, Joe and Patricia break free of their selfish natures and realize that life is about caring for others and learning to appreciate what you've been given. It's also about confronting your fears and taking risks; don't let life idly pass you by. After meeting the Waponis (led by Abe Vigoda), who aren't willing sacrifice themselves for the island and are too absorbed by consumerism, the couple has a epiphany. "Nobody knows, Joe. But we'll see. We'll take this jump, and we'll see. That's life, right?"

So together, in the end, they resist the devil's temptations, commit the ultimate act of selflessness, face their fears, and leap into the Big Woo. Since they have found the true meaning of life, the fire (death) spits them out and hurls them into the ocean (birth). We see them off beginning their life anew with a refreshed view of the world.

--

"I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? I'm not arguing with you!"

No buts about it, this movie tanked. It was a blip in the long, storied career of Tom Hanks, and stunted the rise of Meg Ryan's stardom. I don't think people got it. Perhaps the audience couldn't get past the scenario of a man who travels to an island of Waponis and jumps into a volcano. It sounds like it should be funny, but I wouldn't classify Joe Versus the Volcano as a straightforward comedy. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley does not really play this movie for laughs, but rather, for the heart. This is Shanley's first effort as a director (his second is the terrific Doubt, from '08), but Shanley is most notably a very successful playwright. And the man definitely has a way with words. Some of the dialogue from this movie really digs deep.

And as I outlined above, Joe Versus the Volcano is about something. The film takes chances. It doesn't get lazy. Every scene is loaded with all kinds of symbolism -- some heavy-handed, some subtle. For instance, the books that Joe takes with him as he leave his job pretty much outline the themes of his journey: Robinson Crusoe (self-discovery), Romeo and Juliet (true love) and Homer's Odyssey (heroism). As he left his job, Joe was ready to tackle these elements. Shanley really knew how to convey his themes into the movie. But it only worked for those who looked for them.

Shanley also assembles a remarkable cast, including Dan Hedaya as Joe's boss ("You watch it, mister! There's a woman in here!"), Robert Stack as the doctor who was paid off to diagnose him with a ridiculous disease (Patricia: "You were diagnosed with a brain cloud, and you didn't bother to ask for a second opinion?"), and Meg Ryan in not one but three roles. She does solid work here, though I wouldn't say her roles here are among her best. Her chemistry with Hanks, though, is sorely missed this day and age. Like Douglas and Turner, I wish they would make more movies together.

And Tom Hanks sells this movie. He made this after Big but it would be 3 years before he wins his first Oscar. I think Joe Banks was his last truly "offbeat" character before he turned serious (though his role in The Ladykillers was an inspired choice, it just didn't gel). Funny thing is, though, I think Hanks would be just as good as Joe Banks today, as he was 21 years ago. Maybe even better.

The bottom line is this: Joe Versus the Volcano awakens the soul. It's a feel good movie in every sense of the term. The scene with Joe on the raft staring up at the moon, marveling at the beauty of it, is about as life-affirming as anything I've seen on a movie screen. "God, thank you for my life," he exclaims.

And John Patrick Shanley, thank you for Joe Versus the Volcano.

"May you live to be a thousand years old, sir."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The 5 Best: Gary Oldman

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"Death is whimsical today."
-Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman)
in The Professional

The LAMB (that's the Large Association of Movie Blogs, for those not in the know) is putting together a retrospective of Gary Oldman this month. I thought this would be a good time to reflect on the great performances of this fiery actor. As always with these lists, it's tough when you're leaving something out. His repertoire is littered with juicy performances. I also loved his work as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, as well as his villainous turn as Ivan in Air Force One, Commissioner Gordon in the updated Batman franchise (a rare and refreshing good guy role) and Jackie Flanery in State of Grace. Most Oldman fans would probably single out his portrayal of Sid Vicious in the cult classic, Sid & Nancy, but I haven't seen it, nor that of his Beethoven portrayal in Immortal Beloved. I was unimpressed with Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Fifth Element and Hannibal. Those films were wastes of talent for all involved. And finally, his roles in Romeo is Bleeding and Murder In the First were admired at first sight but failed to leave any long lasting impressions.

So with all that said, without further ado, my favorite Gary Oldman performances - in no particular order.

Stansfield in The Professional (1994)
Far and away, the best and most visceral performance of his career. In Luc Besson's classic thriller that launched the careers of Jean Reno and Natalie Portman, Oldman plays DEA agent Norman Stansfield, a sleazy, live wire scumbag of a cop who murdered Portman's family in cold blood. He's also a drug addict, gladly stealing and using the evidence from his crime scenes. Oldman plays Stansfield with such feral intensity that is frightening to watch because you know precisely what he's capable of.

Shelly Runyon in The Contender (2000)
In Rod Lurie's terrific political drama, Jeff Bridges received the lion's share of the film's accolades for his fantastic portrayal of President Jackson Evans. Evans nominates Lainey Hanson (Joan Allen, also great) to be his VP before his term ends, and the nomination committee chairman Shelly Runyon (Oldman) pulls out all of the stops to make sure it doesn't happen. He's blatantly sexist, believes that a woman should not have power in high office. He's a gossip-monger and relishes the fact that he holds the evidence that just may take her down. It's a snarky, oily performance, and with his paunchy figure and curly locks, Oldman disappears into the role.

Drexl Spivey in True Romance (1993)
True Romance, one of my favorite films of all time, is littered with great actors in small, powerful performances. Walken and Hopper may have left lasting impressions, but Oldman's brief portrayal of drug dealer Drexl does not go unnoticed. He's covered in garish clothing, long and twisty dreadlocks, gold teeth, glass eye. He doesn't have to say anything and he just creeps you out. But when he does talk...you're just hanging on for dear life. "Why you trippin? We just fuckin' wit' ya!"

Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991)
Oldman uncannily looks like Oswald, doesn't he? I think his performance here as the most mysterious figure in the "conspiracy" - did he act alone or not? - singles him out as the most effective and memorable among a cast of greats. You've got Pesci, Jones, Sutherland, Lemmon, Matthau, et. al. all playing colorful and enigmatic supporting characters (and very well, mind you). But, plain and simple, Oldman is Oswald.

Emmett Foley in Chattahoochee (1989)
Chattahoochee is not a great movie but it is a well-acted one (Hopper and McDormand are terrific as well). Oldman was a relatively fresh young face when this came out, and I'll never forget this as the film I first witnessed his work as an actor. It's a live wire performance - he's a mentally unhinged war vet - and his electric intensity becomes a trademark he eventually perfects in the years to come. For me, Emmett Foley was the birth of a great, edgy actor.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Quick Takes: Inside Job, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Unstoppable

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Recapping a week in rentals.

I started off with Inside Job (2010), winner of this year's Oscar for Best Documentary. It's a sobering investigation about our country's current economic crisis. Director Charles Ferguson is not afraid to point fingers. In his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards last month, he stated that none of the individuals who had a hand in the world's largest Ponzi scheme ever set foot in a jail cell. In fact, some of these CEOs and analysts are still receiving million dollar bonuses. What is wrong with this picture? Inside Job is an exhaustive, comprehensive look at how it all went down, but it's infuriating that nothing, it appears, can be done to stop these guys from doing it all over again. 3.5/5

Speaking of infuriating, that was my experience of watching It's Kind of a Funny Story (2010), a dramedy from the team behind '06's terrific Half Nelson. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wrote and directed this insufferable, claustrophobic story about Craig (Keir Gilchrist, an odd screen presence) a teenager who checks himself into a psych ward for depression. Soon enough, he's surrounded by a quirky cast of psych patients who, of course, teach him that Everything Will Be All Right. These psych patients, by the way, look like they were turned away from auditions for a revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, both usually terrific, are wasted here as his parents, while Zach Galifianakis continues to irritate me the more I see him. And he's everywhere. It's kind of a bummer, really. 1/5

But no worries. I washed that movie down with a tall cold glass of refreshing genre fare poured to me by a crafty Tony Scott. He helms Unstoppable (2010) with great precision and skill. It's his best movie since True Romance. Running at very lean 98 minutes, it's the story about an unmanned train (which happens to be loaded with toxic waste, of course!) that is in danger of derailing in a highly populated town. No sneering villains (except for a greedy corporate boss, nicely underplayed by Kevin Dunn), no unnecessary romantic story lines, it wastes no time with filler. It's about a fast moving train and the two men who work to stop it. That's it. Unstoppable is a breath of fresh air, nicely anchored by Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson, and is one of the year's best escapist thrillers. 5/5

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Best of the Year: 2008

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Burn After Reading
This movie was Fun, with a capital F. I had a great time watching this zany cast of characters bumble their way around love affairs, political intrigue, murder and kinky sex. These are angry, thoughtful characters, always trying to do what's right for themselves. I was more involved with them, their feelings and character arcs, instead of the insanely complicated plot. The perfect cast made the story really easy to follow, even though it didn't make any sense. The final scene with the CIA bosses trying to sort it out was a great clincher. Glad to see the Coens haven't lost their sense of humor.

Doubt
What an acting powerhouse! Hoffman, Streep, Adams and Davis were all nominated for Oscars for their work here, and they are all equally deserved. The story is simple and spare, and the film is all about tone, mood and nuance. It's a mature, professional, and intensely thought-provoking Hollywood production. It couldn't have been done better.

Frost/Nixon
A supremely entertaining, eye-opening experience. As they have alluded in the film, watching Frost and Nixon on screen is like watching a boxing match. It's not only a film about politics or the Presidency, but also about discovering your worth. Frost had gambled his life and career for this big "get" and had a lot to prove. Meanwhile, Nixon carried this deep regret with him and what a huge cathartic moment for himself and the public alike to own up on what happened and let things go. Nicely done.

Gran Torino
I'm growing more and more obsessed with Clint Eastwood in recent years. He may not be the best filmmaker or actor in Hollywood, but he's a fascinating individual. His movies are always engaging and interesting, always of high quality and merit. I'll be digging through his catalogue for years and years. Even if he may not have the depth to be a great actor, he never fails to have an undeniably mesmerizing screen presence. And as for Gran Torino, it's just a pure delight, from top to bottom. It's tight, thoughtful, funny and endearing, featuring a light touch that I love seeing from Eastwood, the director.

Happy-Go-Lucky
First Secrets & Lies. Then Vera Drake. Now this, the third film from Mike Leigh to show up on my year end list. It's a disarmingly funny, sweet comedy about two very different people who live in their own isolated worlds. One's a cheerful optimist, while the other is a depressing lump of negative energy. And no, they don't end up together. They do, however, connect in surprising and meaningful ways. Sally Hawkins is a breath of fresh air.

In Bruges
When this movie came out earlier in the year, I was blown away by it. It was an original and refreshing buddy/crime movie about two criminals who are forced to hide in a small town while awaiting directions from a crime boss. Colin Farrell (who gets better every year) and Brendan Gleeson are pitch-perfect as the hitmen who pretend to be tourists in an incredibly boring town. Ralph Fiennes, who is having another great year, is smashingly electric as a live wire of a boss who keeps true to his word. Positively brilliant.

Iron Man
A terrific franchise-starter, if there ever was one. Iron Man was never meant to be just one film, so I saw this as the first episode of an entertaining, funny and rollicking action picture series. I love seeing Robert Downey, Jr. enjoy his newfound and well-deserved success. The man has more lives than a cat. Bring on the sequels!

John Adams
I don't consider myself a history buff in any way, shape or form. But this one piqued my interest thanks to the pedigree in front of and behind the camera. I learned quite a bit from this insightful, moving drama that traced the important events of John Adams's life. What really blew my mind was Paul Giamatti's performance, an acting powerhouse truly deserving of his Emmy and Golden Globe. It's the best thing he's ever done. And I can't leave out Laura Linney, stunning in every way as his legendary wife, best friend and supporter, Abigail. A high-class masterpiece.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
A delicious, flaky croissant of a movie. My grin was ear-to-ear from beginning to end as I watched the droll Frances McDormand play a street smart assistant who magically ends up in high places. Amy Adams gets more adorable in every movie she's in, and Cieran Hinds wonderfully plays against type as a love interest for the guarded Miss Pettigrew. The movie may be fluff, but it's really very charming fluff, indeed.

Rachel Getting Married
Everything about this movie clicked. The actors are undoubtedly convincing as a deeply wounded, tightly-knit family celebrating a major life-changing milestone. There's nothing pretentious or fake or staged about this film at all; it's the most electrifying, natural piece of cinema I have seen in many, many years. I know a sequel would be all wrong, a sin committed by the whores of Hollywood but, honestly, I'd kill to see any of these people again.

The Reader
This one surprised me. I was expecting a stuffy, sweeping epic with "important" messages about the Holocaust, long lost loves, and revisiting great pain and anguish. Boy, I love it when I'm wrong. It's actually a very quiet, introspective, life-affirming little drama that thrives on very small character moments instead of grand, cinematic gestures. Everyone shines in this worthy Best Picture nominee.

Slumdog Millionaire
It's the first movie in many years where a Best Picture winner never felt more deserving. It's a stirring journey, emotionally stimulating and cinematically electrifying. It's really the perfect mishmash of a typical Hollywood love story infused with dazzling visual beauty and pulsating, jazzy music. The final act is nothing short of invigorating. As the end credits were rolling, I felt like I could walk on water - the equivalent of a cinematic high.

Tropic Thunder
The funniest film of the year, bar none. Not every gag worked, of course, but the laughs were consistent and aplenty. The film looks really fantastic, like a big-budget action film, and the impeccable cast solidly delivers. And what else can I say about Robert Downey, Jr. that hasn't been said already?

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody Allen is on a late-career resurgence and it's really a pleasure to watch. I really loved his Match Point a few years back, and this one is just as blistering and enlightening. Penelope Cruz is well-deserving of her Oscar, but I would've love to have seen Rebecca Hall or Javier Bardem get some equal kudos as well. It's funny, absorbing, insightful -- another great work from a tireless and talented filmmaker.

Wall-E
Yet another gem from the folks at Pixar, a refreshingly adult computer-generated marvel that is truly a feast for the eyes on an HD screen. They've been steering away from the strictly-kiddie fare as of late, and I have mixed emotions. I miss the go-for-broke lunacy of Monsters, Inc and Toy Story, but I cannot deny the impeccable craftmanship and emotional resonance of their latest works. Wall-E is just another masterpiece from a long line of masterpieces.

Wanted
This one came way out of left field. With no desire to see it on the big screen, Wanted languished on my queue for a few months before finally being shipped to my mailbox. I had a blast! It's one of the best-looking movies I've seen in a long time, the plot was so insane that it really worked, the camera-work was astounding and Angelina's lips never looked sexier. The film surprised me from beginning to end.

Honorary Mention
Appaloosa; Australia; Ballast; The Bank Job; Changeling; Chop Shop; The Class; The Dark Knight; Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father;  Defiance; Forgetting Sarah Marshall; Frozen River; Ghost Town; Hancock; The Happening; Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay; The Incredible Hulk; Lakeview Terrace; Let the Right One In; Marley & Me; Milk; Nothing But the Truth; Recount; Religulous; Role Models; Sex and the City; Snow Angels; Tell No One; Traitor; Transsiberian; The Visitor; Wendy and Lucy; The Wrestler; The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Best of the Year: 1985

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My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Back to the Future
Movies don't get any better than this. One of the greatest of all time, this is the classic fish-out-of-water comedy about a young man named Marty McFly who finds himself in a time machine that takes him back to when his parents were teenagers. Unfortunately for him, his own mother falls for him (!), and it's up to Marty to set things right or his existence will be erased. It's a perfect movie, not a single frame is wasted.

The Breakfast Club
The best teen comedy-drama of the decade. It makes me wonder why none of them became A-list movie stars, but they turned out all right. Teenagers crave to relate and connect to someone who understands them, and The Breakfast Club speaks to them in volumes. What’s amazing, also, is that any fan of the film can recite its dialogue verbatim. John Hughes's screenplay is in their bloodstream. "We are pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all."

Clue
Some VHS tapes were just meant to be worn out and my copy of Clue never survived. I've probably seen this movie more times than I have seen any other. It is not a masterpiece and it doesn't claim to be something it is not. Clue is a great, campy farce that just happens to be based on a board game. It's littered with dozens of one-liners ("Men should be like Kleenex: soft, strong and disposable."), performed by a cast of comedy greats (Kahn, McKean, Mull, to name a few), and helmed by an underrated director of the 80's and 90's, Jonathan Lynn. "Yep, two corpses, everything's fine."

Cocoon
1985 was the year of the senior citizen. The Golden Girls began their long-running smash this year, and made old people sexy and funny. And Cocoon just made you want to go out there and hug every old-timer in sight. This is a clever, highly engaging sci-fi dramedy that features a who’s who cast of greats, like Jessica “Miss Daisy” Tandy, Hume “Mr. Tandy” Cronyn, Wilford “Oatmeal” Brimley, and the inimitable Don Ameche. A wonderful delight.

Fright Night
This classic vampire film ranks up there as one of the funniest, scariest and cheesiest horror movies of the 80’s. William Ragsdale plays a horror movie fan who believes his neighbor, a great Chris Sarandon, is a vampire. No one believes him so he enlists the aid of a ghost hunter and TV show host, Roddy McDowall, to hunt him down. It starts off spoofing the genre but it genuinely builds into an intense and scary little movie. McDowall, rest his soul, is a hoot.

The Goonies
The first of two Richard Donner masterpieces in 1985 (the other being Ladyhawke), The Goonies is an action comedy about a group of kids looking to embark on one last adventure before moving out of town. There is no teenage boy who does not like this movie. It has action, booby-traps, dead pirates, first kisses, rubies and diamonds, rocky road ice cream, truffle shuffles and bullet holes the size of matzoh balls. Who can resist the charm of this movie? Goonies never say die!

Ladyhawke
Soaring, visually stunning adventure about a knight named Navarre (Rutger Hauer) who enlists the aid of a young thief (Matthew Broderick) to avenge a corrupt bishop and reverse a devastating curse. Navarre is in love with beautiful Isabel (the luminous Michelle Pfieffer), but the bishop cursed him, making Navarre a wolf by night and Isabel a hawke by day. They are forbidden from ever being together as humans. Ladyhawke is a mystical love story directed by the legendary Richard Donner, and it’s as lovely as anything you’ve ever seen.

Pee Wee's Big Adventure
"I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel." If you stand back and actually read this script, you'd be shocked that this was a commercial and critical hit. The plot is spare and straightforward, but the film is littered with such bizarre and off-the-wall encounters, it never ceases to amaze me how Tim Burton and Paul Reubens managed to make it so damned charming. The sequel tanked, which is rather telling. Pee Wee's Big Adventure is a one-of-a-kind.

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
The adventure began and sadly never continued. When this first came out, I watched it countless times, reciting dialogue and reenacting scenes. Remo Williams (played to perfection by Fred Ward) was an action hero like I had never seen before at my young age. And when no sequel came, I was heartbroken. Apparently this movie tanked with critics and the movie-going public, so a franchise was not in the cards. Too bad because I would have been first in line for the next adventure.

Spies Like Us
"This is my sister. You can all have her. I hear she's very good." Spies Like Us is another endlessly quotable 80's comedy that saw lots of replay action in my house. Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd are government employees who are under the impression that they are actually spies. They attempt to avert a nuclear disaster and... well, does it really matter? The film is just an excuse to get Aykroyd and Chase together and tell jokes. Good thing that the jokes are very, very funny. "Where'd you learn your Russian? JC Penney?"

Witness
Harrison Ford earned his sole Oscar nomination for his poignant portrayal of John Book in Peter Weir's fantastic thriller. Lukas Haas plays an Amish boy who has witnessed a murder and Book is the police officer assigned to protect him until the trial ends. While hiding out in Amish country, Book falls for the boy's mother, Kelly McGillis. The film was a big break for Ford, his first foray as a leading man outside of the adventure/fantasy genre. Witness was a huge success and proved that Ford was not only a Movie Star but an Actor as well.

Honorary Mention
Cat's Eye; A Chorus Line; The Color Purple; D.A.R.Y.L., Death of a Salesman; The Emerald Forest; The Falcon and the Snowman; Jagged Edge; Just One of the Guys; The Man with One Red Shoe; Murphy’s Romance; Rocky IV; Runaway Train; St Elmo's Fire; A View to a Kill

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