Monday, June 27, 2011

Hidden Treasure: Dolores Claiborne

Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to....

A few weeks ago, I saw a small Dustin Hoffman movie called Straight Time, which was released in 1978. In the film, there is an appearance by a young, slim Kathy Bates. She was the youngest I'd ever seen her, and though the role was brief, she had a very commanding presence. She had two pivotal scenes in the film, and she nailed the part. If I had seen Straight Time when it was released that year, I'd be proclaiming that this young up-and-comer named Kathy Bates was going to be a star.

And boy, what an incredible career this woman has had. She beautifully bared it all in About Schmidt. She got me all teary eyed in Fried Green Tomatoes (Go ahead. Laugh). She scared the cockadoodle bejesus out of me in Misery. She was robbed of an Oscar for Primary Colors. And the list goes on. But Kathy Bates has spent most of her career in supporting roles (she's like a fresh breath of air when she waltzes onto a movie, however briefly). So when she's front and center, we take notice.

One of her best roles - leading or otherwise - is that of Dolores Claiborne. The film of the same name flew under the radar when it was released in 1995. It was mildly praised by critics and barely made a dent in the box office. Backed by a remarkable cast, including Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and a fresh-faced John C. Reilly, this Tony Gilroy-penned adaptation of Stephen King's novel was deftly helmed by underrated director Taylor Hackford. Dolores Claiborne had a remarkable pedigree and it was a damned good movie. So where's the love?

Now, you listen to me, Mr. Grand High Poobah of Upper Buttcrack. I'm just about half-past give a shit with your fun and games.

The script can be melodramatic ("Husbands die every day, Dolores"), but subtlety isn't what they are striving for. This is a soap opera, plain and simple. An old, rich woman dies. Dolores is accused of murdering her. The cop (Plummer) is determined to put her in jail for good, something he should have done twenty years ago when Dolores's husband was mysteriously killed. Did she kill her husband? What about the old lady? Dolores's estranged daughter (Leigh) isn't so sure what to feel. She hardly remembers anything about her father's death ("It was just a bad patch!").

The central mystery of the film isn't all that special, but it's how the mystery unfolds that makes Dolores Claiborne a terrific piece of entertainment. Hackford and Gilroy weave flashbacks within flashbacks with incredible finesse. It doesn't feel forced; every reveal occurs naturally. Also, the film visually pops out at you. It's gorgeously lit, and Hackford subtly uses digital effects for flashback transitions. The effect is hypnotizing; you are drawn into the story as it takes you through time.

The cast elevates the film to a whole new level. I mentioned how good of an actress Kathy Bates is. But Dolores Claiborne ranks up there as one of her most indelible characters, alongside Annie Wilkes and Libby Holden. It's no surprise that King wrote the book with Bates in mind. Dolores is bitter and resentful ("If you wanna know what kind of life a person had, just look at their hands"), but also headstrong and logical. Her daughter Selena is very similar-minded, yet they clash over what's mostly unsaid between the two. The past has kept them apart. It's a complex relationship, filled with dark secrets but little regrets.

It's surprising that the book and screenplay were written by men. Dolores Claiborne is very much a female-driven character piece. The third pivotal female role is Vera Davenport (played wonderfully by stage actress Judy Parfitt), a woman not quite who we assume to be. Like with Dolores and Selena, the layers of her traits are revealed slowly as the film drives toward its memorable conclusion.

Even though these women are the anchors of this film, the men, while more broadly drawn, are portrayed so well by the actors who embody them. Plummer is so good here as a detective driven by the need to close his only unresolved case. Strathairn is more one note (since his scenes are colored from the perspective of Dolores), but he fills the role with great anger and gruffness.

Dolores Claiborne is a change of pace for Stephen King. Like Shawshank, or The Green Mile, it's not the typical horror story you would expect from him. But there are glimpses of the master at work in this story. When Dolores shouted at her husband during a heated argument: "That's the last time you will ever hit me. Next time, one of us is going to the bone yard." That line there is unmistakably King.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Just one more thing, Mr. Falk....


"When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I'm gonna read it to you...."
--Grandpa in "The Princess Bride"

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Quick Takes: Super 8

We are more than halfway into 2011 and this past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing my second '11 film in a theater. The first was back in March for The Adjustment Bureau, which I enjoyed, and I'm happy to report that Super 8 (2011) puts me at two for two. I don't go to the movies often, so I'm always happy when I make the effort to go and it's not a stinker.

Many said Super 8 resembled some of Spielberg's earlier works (Close Encounters, E.T.), but for me, The Goonies (a Spielberg production, oddly enough) is the closest movie that mirrors the energy and spirit of Super 8, and that's a huge compliment. These kids are hungry for adventure; instead of having one last Goonie hunt, these guys just want to make a good zombie movie. They are genuinely frightened by the events that follow, and while they bicker endlessly, they share a deep affection for one another. There's even a love triangle. It's all very reminiscent of that '85 Richard Donner classic, though Super 8 doesn't quite make that perfect landing.

I have some problems: Remember Chunk? Data? Brand? Mama Fratelli? Of course you do. Now, name at least 4 characters in Super 8. Exactly. These characters are very thin, distinguishable mostly by physical characteristics. With the exception of Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and Alice (Elle Fanning), I don't think the kids were well-cast. Sure, they are given funny bits of dialogue and imbue a terrific sense of camaraderie, but it was not enough to make them stick with you forever. And as much as I love seeing Friday Night Lights' Kyle Chandler as Joe's dad (and Abrams certainly loves filming him, zooming closely on his face on many occasions), the role he plays feels shallow. Even Noah Emmerich's villainous government operative is a stock figure. I was really hoping J.J. Abrams filmed a scene where we meet Nelec's mentally unstable and disfigured rocky-road-ice-cream-loving brother.

Another problem: the special effects weren't so special. I wasn't impressed with the train wreck. It was overkill. I understand it was supposed to be a big enough crash to unleash the film's mystery element, but I felt it was a bit excessive with all that flying debris. And that big reveal? It's not so much that the creature was disappointing, but it just felt out of place. I know it's a monster movie, but I preferred it when the monster's presence was disguised and low key. The movie was not all about the monster, and that's when it clicked the most.

The film showcases a time of innocence and wonder, a throwback to an era we all remember fondly. Despite my problems with the film, Super 8 was deeply engaging, quickly paced, and had many scenes filled with heart. What makes it stand out is that it's sweetly soaked in nostalgia. 3.5/5

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The 5 Best: Stephen King Movie Adaptations

Stephen King has a very interesting relationship with Hollywood. The industry has taken his vast collection of short stories and novels, and produced a few masterpieces, dozens of halfway-decent fare, and a whole lot of shit. When I was sorting through the catalog of his movie adaptations (including those made for TV), I counted at least 50 titles. And that's not counting King's original material, a la Cat's Eye, or the well-received mini-series Kingdom Hospital, or direct-to-video sequels to unworthy films (Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest, anyone?).

Like I said, there are a lot of crappy movies (The Lawnmower Man, Maximum Overdrive, Dreamcatcher, just to name a few) and a handful of just-okay stuff (The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Apt Pupil, Hearts in Atlantis). But I was surprised by the hefty amount of pretty decent films. For instance, TV has been good to him. I really admired the string of miniseries that ran in the early-to-mid 90's on ABC. The Stand, It, The Langoliers, The Shining -- all very entertaining with low budgets, solid casts, and somewhat faithful retellings of King's more popular stories. Speaking of The Shining, I loved Kubrick's version just as much as the TV mini-series (I'm in the minority, I know), but both are unique spins on King's shocking thriller about a writer who terrorizes his family in a hotel. Kubrick's version was a masterwork (and Nicholson was his usual fantastic self), despite the film not being all that faithful to the source. At least the miniseries kept closely to the book, and its leisurely pace allowed for a genuinely suspenseful build-up. I almost had both Shining films at a tie for the fifth slot, but I didn't want to cheat and I couldn't make the sacrifice!

Max Von Sydow in Needful Things
Some of his 80's thrillers still stick with me. Christine, about the car that kills people, and Pet Sematary, about animals coming back from the dead, traumatized me when I was a kid. I had nightmares for years. I haven't revisited them in quite some time, but I doubt they'll hold up. The Running Man was terribly cheesy, but I still can't get over the inspired villainous casting of Richard Dawson of Family Feud fame. That's like having Howie Mandel being chased by Dwayne Johnson. (Do I smell a potential remake?). And I'm probably the only one who totally dug Needful Things, that Ed Harris thriller where he played a sheriff who embattles the devil, played to perfection by Max Von Sydow. JT Walsh, Amanda Plummer, Bonnie Bedelia round out the eclectic cast. Terrific '90's kitsch.

On the more acclaimed side, in addition to leaving out The Shining, I had to take off The Green Mile, which I thought was overrated and by far the weakest of the three collaborations of King and writer/director Frank Darabont. I liked it enough, but it felt very shallow for its long running time. The other title that didn't quite make it: Carrie. DePalma's terrific retelling of King's earliest work would have made my top 10, easily. But alas, I had to draw the line somewhere.

So without further ado, below are my favorite films adapted from the work of one of literature's best novelists.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Darabont)
Let's get the obvious one out of the way. This is best of the bunch, by far and large. Based on King's novella, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, this is the first and most fruitful of the magical collaboration between the author and Frank Darabont. This film is just tremendously moving. The plight of the two imprisoned men -- Andy and Red -- is deeply felt and beautifully portrayed by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, respectively, in their career-best performances. If this film was not released in the same year as Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, it would have swept the Oscars. Though it walked away empty-handed that night, The Shawshank Redemption has never left our hearts since.

The Mist (2007, Darabont)
One of the best films of 2007. After those final scenes, my jaw was on the floor. It was the ballsiest ending I had ever seen out of a Hollywood production. This was no edgy independent thriller - this was a mid-budget monster movie originally set up at Paramount (who sold it to Dimension, possibly in fear of controversy) and the film just completely drained the blood out of me. King's novella ended ambiguously, but Darabont wanted a finite ending. King approved of the final cut and said The Mist is the most frightening adaptation of his work he had ever seen. I couldn't have said it better.

Stand By Me (1986, Reiner)
The first of another inspired pairing: King and Rob Reiner. Reiner took King's short story (The Body), made it less macabre and more heartfelt, added young up-and-coming actors (Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, River Phoenix, Kiefer Sutherland), sprinkled in a Richard Dreyfuss narration, and stirred. Stand By Me is a wonderful concoction, a tasteful, bittersweet drama. It is the epitome of "coming-of-age" films.

Misery (1990, Reiner) 
Reiner again, this time bringing the legendary William Goldman on board to adapt King's frightening and hilarious novel about an obsessed fan who takes things too far. Stephen King knows a thing or two about obsessed fans. Could this have been autobiographical? Is he Paul Sheldon? I wouldn't put the notion past him! The character of Annie Wilkes (played to perfection by Oscar winner Kathy Bates) is quintessential King, one of the best creations in his long list of eccentric personalities. Like Frances McDormand in Fargo 6 years later, it's the perfect role matched with the perfect actress.

Dolores Claiborne (1995, Hackford)
Like Annie Wilkes in Misery, Kathy Bates can thank Stephen King for giving her yet another extraordinary role with Dolores Claiborne. It's a full-bodied performance - one of her best - in a crackling domestic thriller about a disturbed woman accused of murdering her employer. Is she innocent? Does her own estranged daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) believe her? David Strathairn is also damned good as Claiborne's dead husband who pops up during flashbacks, which are beautifully orchestrated by director Taylor Hackford. Dolores Claiborne is an underseen, underrated drama, one of the best films to come out from Uncle Stevie's canon of the macabre.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Quick Takes: Tron: Legacy, True Grit

Jeff Bridges is certainly enjoying an impressive run these days, isn't he? As a longtime fan of his work, I'm happy he's finally getting due recognition (hello Oscar!) and more solid work. Bridges is no longer a resilient, persistent underdog, but now a force to be reckoned with. Last year alone, he had a dual role in the much anticipated sequel to his underground 80's hit, Tron, and a showy, spectacular performance in the latest venture from the brothers Coen. I had the pleasure of viewing both films this week, and Bridges continues to knock me out. The man is unstoppable.

I know I saw Tron sometime in the 80s (I was 5 when it came out), but I can't remember a lick of it. I went into Tron: Legacy (2010) with trepidation. Would I "get" it? Would it be another sci-fi effects-driven opus that would give me a headache if I tried to figure it out? A half hour into the movie, my fears were gone. Tron: Legacy is surprisingly accessible to newcomers, an easy-going, nimbly-paced adventure about a teenager (Garrett Hedlund, a fantastic presence and a star in the making) in search for his father (Bridges), who has gone missing inside of a super-computer. Sam comes across a digital, younger version of his father (Bridges again, in a technologically groundbreaking performance), who is at war with his real self. No doubt about it, the plot is silly and not without its share of corny sentiment, but it works. Newcomer director Joseph Kosinki has a strong grasp on this material and carried me through the film with ease and skill. Writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (best known from me for penning some classic Lost episodes) have a penchant for witty, fun dialogue and not taking the film too seriously.

I had a good time with Tron: Legacy. It looks great, Hedlund has a starry quality about him, and Bridges looks like he's having a ball. It is far from perfect, but what's not to like here? 3.5/5

Bridges again disappears into a showy role as Rooster Cogburn, a character originated on screen by John Wayne back in 1969, in True Grit (2010), the latest effort by movie gods Joel and Ethan Coen. Bridges is barely recognizable under that heavy beard, eye patch and punchy dialogue ("The jakes is occupied!"), but it's an indelible, layered performance, as good as anything he has ever done. Hailee Steinfeld is a remarkable newcomer; like Hedlund in Tron: Legacy, you just know she will be going places. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper are as reliably good as you'd expect them to be.

The real star of this vengeance drama, though, is the script. The dialogue is like butter; listening to the exchanges between these characters is the main source of pleasure I got from True Grit. A sample:

Lawyer: So, you say that when Amos Wharton raised his axe, you backed away from him.
Cogburn: That's right.
Lawyer: In what direction were you going?
Cogburn: Backwards. I always go backwards when I back up.

Unsurprisingly, the Coens have a magical way with words. Like Hemingway or Dickens, you just know their voices. True Grit is a remake and an adaptation of a novel, but make no mistake: this is strictly a Coen film. I'm not a fan of westerns, but these guys entertained the hell out of me with this one. 4/5

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Virgin Vintage Viewings: The Panic in Needle Park and Straight Time

Virgin Vintage Viewings is a series in which we view older well-known/classic films for the first time.

Pairing these two titles was accidental. I chose randomly from my vast queue of unseen gems, and I was struck by how oddly similar they were. At first glance, there is no apparent connection between Ulu Grosbard's Straight Time (1978) and Jerry Shatzberg's The Panic in Needle Park (1971). When I did a little research before writing this up, I did discover a common thread: these are the last films that Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino starred in, respectfully, before hitting major milestones in their impressive careers. For Hoffman, it was his final film before becoming an Oscar winner (for the heartbreaking Kramer Vs Kramer). For Pacino, he went from Bobby in The Panic in Needle Park to Michael Corleone in The Godfather.

But more to the point, these are two films about the power of addiction. The Panic in Needle Park focuses on a common one: drugs. Pacino broke into Hollywood with this film, a dark, quiet drama about a drug addict who falls for a comely drifter. The two lost souls connect, but when Bobby goes under his drug-induced spell, Helen (Kitty Winn) is alone and miserable. So she begins using - and whoring - in order to be with Bobby through all kinds of altered states. Ain't love grand?

This is a difficult film to watch. Lots of extended scenes and close ups of addicts shooting up, distributing, tricking, robbing, stealing, you name it. The title of the film comes from a period in the 70's where cops were cracking down on drug dealing in NYC, sending addicts to a "panic" in which they'll do anything - and I mean anything - for a fix. Watching the film's two lovebirds careen wildly from happy and energetic to desperate and angry - and back again - grew tiresome and repetitive towards the final act. You can pretty much guess how the film will unfold; it's just inevitable that these people have nothing else to live for. I think Schatzberg knew the fate of Bobby and Helen would be pretty clear, so he did the smart thing: he closed the film two scenes before the end of the story. This actually works because there's nothing more boring than knowing exactly what happens next. Schatzberg didn't need to spell out the obvious.

As tough as this film is to watch, it's remarkable to see what an expressive actor Al Pacino is. This is Pacino making his leading role debut, and what an entrance it is. The man is a legend; Hollywood without Al Pacino is like movie theaters without popcorn. He has made some indelible marks in this industry. Needless to say, he's terrific here, a fresh face and a bundle of nerves.

Kitty Winn also won raves for her performance here. It's a brave, auspicious debut. She only appeared in a few more movies before dropping out of the business altogether. It's a shame. The camera loves her and I think she could have pulled off a wide-ranging career.

If you're going to talk about great actors, though, you can never not mention Dustin Hoffman, an all-time favorite of mine. He's always disappearing into his roles, and he's always on. He is such a transformative actor, a man who consistently creates memorable characters film after film (see: Michael Dorsey/Dorothy Michaels, Ratso Rizzo, Raymond Babbitt, or more recently - and just as brilliantly - Guisseppe Baldini from Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). He's Captain Hook! Mumbles! No wait, he's Lenny Bruce! The man is a chameleon.

Straight Time uncovers a gem of a character: ex-con Max Dembo. He's a small time crook, addicted to the life of crime. But he wants to go straight. He makes an effort: gets a new job, finds his own place, meets a new girl. He's convinced he can turn himself around.

But the influences around him pull him back in. First, his parole officer (the fabulous M. Emmett Walsh, character actor extraordinaire) is a greasy prick who would love nothing more than to see Dembo back behind bars. Walsh resembles authority, and as an outcast who has resisted authority all of his life, it's not easy for Dembo to play by Walsh's rules.

Hanging out with old friends, including the wonderfully cast Gary Busey and Harry Dean Stanton, makes it tough for Dembo to resist the urges of robbing jewelry stores and stealing cars. His new girlfriend, Theresa Russell, resembles the lifestyle he only dreams of, but is she enough to change Dembo for good?

Straight Time is a methodical, slow moving character drama that doesn't focus too much on plot. It asks a simple question: can an ex-convict forever change his ways? Jeffrey Boam's thoughtful script zeroes in on the addictive nature of crime and how easy it can be to revert back to your old ways.

Did these two guys really have a chance at making it straight? Like Bobby over at Needle Park, maybe Dembo's fate was sealed from the start. Straight Time's finale wasn't as cryptic as Needle Park's, as the closing credits showed us that Max Dembo belongs exactly where we left him. Not everyone gets the hopeful reprieve of a cut-to-black.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Musings Through Filtered Ears #4

A series of random thoughts, kick-ass links and a movie poster that is NSFW....

Double Jackpot
Last week, when I was compiling the list of my favorite films from 1997, I was reminded of a movie going experience unlike any other.

Picture it. Boston. 1997. A chilly October afternoon.

My buddy Pete was visiting town from Ithaca. We weren't interested in sight-seeing or anything like that. No, we wanted to take in a couple of flicks. You see, we were deep into the fall movie season, otherwise known as Oscar bait season. We had to catch the movies that people were talking about. We ultimately decided on a double feature of Boogie Nights and The Ice Storm.

I have never, ever, even to this day, experienced so much greatness in a single afternoon. I can write a very lengthy post about how wonderful these films are and what they mean to me, but that's for another time. To give you an idea: if I were to compile a list called Top 20 Films of All Time, those two titles would be on it. That's how much I love them.

What are the odds of lightning striking twice in one afternoon? These weren't merely the best movies I'd seen that year but they were among the best I've seen in the 90's! And I saw them back to back! In a theater! In my experience, this is unheard of!

When both movies were both over, Pete and I had to let it all soak in before we began foaming in the mouth on the awesomeness we just witnessed. Needless to say, we discussed them for hours. Boogie Nights remains a mutual favorite for both of us, but The Ice Storm has a very special place in my heart as well.

Tell me, I'm curious. What was the most memorable theatrical double-feature you've ever experienced? I want to know what your idea of a perfect double bill is.

Truth in advertising
We need Alamo Drafthouse to come to New Jersey.

By the way, would it be called Garden State Drafthouse? Hmm, not quite as catchy.

I love this.

No, no...Thank YOU!
Flickers is fast approaching its six-month anniversary, and I think we are settling into a comfortable groove. A few weeks ago, we officially became a Lamb member (number 943, baby!) and we just passed 5000 hits.

So, a heartfelt, sincere thanks goes out to all who have visited, browsed, and commented on the blog, and an extra thanks if you referred us to your friends. We are pleased to be in such fine company among fellow movie lovers. There is a whole world of film bloggers out there and we're happy to get to know some of you.

Now THAT'S how you sell a movie 

I've been digging the marketing campaign for Fincher's adaptation of the ridiculously popular novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I'm a casual fan of the book and the original Swedish film, but I'm unusually psyched for this one. Maybe it's the pedigree involved (I'm a longtime fan of Fincher's and I think Daniel Craig's casting is spot on), but I think what's drawing me to it lately is Columbia's viral marketing campaign. I know the red band trailer (now removed) and the poster above were "leaked," but they are playing it smart. This is a very sexual thriller with heavy feminist undertones and it appears that Fincher's is not shying away from that. A popular novel getting hard-R treatment from mainstream Hollywood? Count me in. And the official trailer, by the way, rocks.

Is Robert Zemeckis back?
According to several sources, it looks like my old favorite Robert Zemeckis is returning to live action filmmaking. This thrills me to no end. Now, I'm all about branching out and trying new things, but come on. He needed to take a break from the motion capture business and go back to doing what he was meant to do. Make brilliant films!

Don't get me wrong: Zemeckis is a pioneer. The Polar Express was a delightful film, magical even. The motion capture technology was bold and innovative, if not entirely successful. The dead eyes, the stiff cheeks - the faces were just a little creepy. However, he continued to push the envelope with Beowulf and A Christmas Carol (both unseen by me), but when his company made the critical and box office failure Mars Needs Moms, everything Zemeckis worked for grinded to a halt.

I feel for the guy, I do. This technology was his baby, and he kept working to improve it. But I think this is a blessing in disguise. I believe Zemeckis has some more amazing live action films in him.

He is easily one of my favorite directors. The Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Romancing the Stone, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away, even the underrated Death Becomes Her all landed on my Best of the Year lists. I miss this guy. I miss his old-school filmmaking style and the way his movies made me feel.

So upon hearing the news that he's venturing back to real filmmaking, I cheered a little. Flight sounds like an intriguing premise (though not fantastical, like his older films), and is sure to be compelling. Washington and Zemeckis should complement one another very well.

I miss this guy, too
Finally, I leave you with this terrific GQ interview with Gene Hackman. He opens up about his retirement from acting and looks back on his most memorable roles. I smell a 5 Best post brewing in the near future.

Trouble is, how am I going to pick only five?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Virgin Vintage Viewings: Blow Out and The Fury

Virgin Vintage Viewings is a new series in which we view older well-known/classic films for the first time.

I'm pleased to kick off our new Virgin Vintage Viewings series with a Brian DePalma double-header: Blow Out and The Fury. Despite having a shaky resume of films, I've been a long time fan of DePalma's. I still consider Mission: Impossible to be his best film, with Carlito's Way and Casualties of War running close behind. I'd place The Untouchables, Carrie and the highly underrated camp masterpiece, Raising Cain, in the very good category, while Dressed To Kill is simply good fun. His weaker entries - The Bonfire of the Vanities, Femme Fatale, The Black Dahlia, Body Double (his most overrated film) -- aren't necessarily bad but are simply not memorable. The less said about Snake Eyes and Wise Guys, the better.

I'm not interested in Mission to Mars or Redacted, but Scarface, Obsession and Sisters are resting comfortably in my Netflix queue and I shall get to them eventually. However, I'm happy to report I've finally gotten my hands on the Criterion DVD of Blow Out (1981) and I would like to know what the hell took me so long to see it. Easily, I'd rank it as one of his very best.

In Blow Out, John Travolta delivers his best early-career performance as Jack Terry, a movie soundman who witnesses a car crash that resulted in the death of a presidential candidate. Was the crash accidental, or was it intentional? He pieces together what little evidence he has, including an audio track of the crash, and uncovers an unsettling truth that gets him in hot water. Sally (Nancy Allen), a call girl who was in the car at the time of the crash, denies any involvement of a set up, though she is clearly hiding something.

On top of the fact that Blow Out is a crackling murder mystery with a handful of shady characters (including a terrific Dennis Franz as a sleazy photographer), it is filmed with great precision and care. The suspense builds up tremendously, especially when John Lithgow arrives as a hired gun set out to eliminate the evidence and put a lid on the conspiracy. I love how DePalma employs his favorite actors over the years. Lithgow, baby-faced and chilling here, is ruthless and determined.

DePalma's trademarks are present here, all of which elevate the film in so many ways. In the film's best scene, Travolta rushes back to his sound lab only to discover that all of his reels have been erased. The camera slowly spins around the room as we see and hear Travolta frantically searching for a reel that has not been destroyed. Sure, it's a showy sequence, but it works tremendously. The emotions are heightened and we are on edge just as much as our hero is. It's effective, vintage DePalma.

I also loved the sequence in the train station in which Lithgow follows a prostitute from the phone booths to the ladies room where he finally murders her. DePalma's camera is all over the action, easily giving us a great sense of place as the two characters inch closer together. We see through the mirror that Lithgow is behind the stall door, just waiting for the right moment to strike, and the suspense is almost unbearable. One of DePalma's greatest gifts as a director is making us feel like we are there.

I'm glad I saw this on a Criterion edition; it's a great looking film loaded with indelible images and hypnotizing sound effects and music. Of all of his films, I'd rank Blow Out right next to Mission: Impossible as a full-blown aesthetically satisfying motion picture.

So where does that leave The Fury (1978)? Probably alongside Dressed to Kill in the good, campy fun category. It rests squarely in the middle of DePalma's flashy, trashy canon of Hitchcockian thrillers.

About a half hour into The Fury, I had a stunning realization. This is the first movie I had ever seen Kirk Douglas in a leading role where he didn't play an old guy (Tough Guys, Greedy, etc). Wow, does he look like his son or what? (I seriously need to see Paths of Glory and Spartacus. Future Virgin Vintage Viewing posts, perhaps?)

Anyway, The Fury is a highly engaging thriller clearly inspired by Carrie, his previous film. Douglas plays an ex-CIA agent who searches for his missing son. The boy was kidnapped by Douglas's former partner (John Cassavetes) who wanted to utilize the kid's special gift (he has parapsychological abilities) and train him to become a killer. A therapist (Carrie Snodgress), who happens to be Douglas's girlfriend, tracks him down thanks to her patient Gillian (Amy Irving).

DePalma merges suspense, science fiction and horror with mixed results here. The reason it doesn't quite gel together is because of too many plot strands. You've got the kids with the special gifts, one of which is a trained killer sleeping with his therapist, while the other is being poked and prodded by a team of doctors (after being ridiculed by a gaggle of school girls, no less); a CIA agent on the run, not only searching for his boy killer but also snuggling up with one of the girl's doctors. There's good material here but everything comes together in a very dense, convoluted way. It's too bad because with some editing of the screenplay, this could have been a great thriller.

Amy Irving, for example, is completely wasted here. The first half of the movie follows her ordeal as a young woman unable to control her psychic powers. Once she finally gets a handle on it, her character gets shoved aside as Douglas and Snodgress investigate the whereabouts of the boy killer. Even Douglas disappears during a bulk of the film's midsection which thereby loses momentum for his character's plight.

I'm probably too hard on the film, but I guess when you realize its potential, it is disappointing because it could have been so much better if more time was spent on the screenplay. All that said, it's still an engaging drama with terrific set pieces and strong camerawork. There are a few flashes of DePalma's brilliance sprinkled throughout the film. The shootout towards the end, resulting in a surprising and shocking death, was wonderfully executed utilizing the director's favorite cinematic elements: long tracking shots, heavily dramatic music (courtesy of John Williams) and slow motion. I also loved the scene when Irving participates in a psychic exercise in her classroom and the camera follows the toy train around the room (not unlike the 360 degree camera in Blow Out). The climax was pretty weak and run-of-the-mill, I'm sorry to say, though I did get a good smile out the final, explosive scene.

Overall, I had a great time looking back at DePalma's earlier work. I know he has a polarizing fan base -- he's equally revered as he is reviled -- but I think he's a fascinating director, a man who always makes the camera an invisible character of his films. Whether if he's got a bird's eye shot, or a spinning camera, or long tracking view... he's clearly having fun with it. I love that he uses Hitchcock as a guide in almost all of his movies. People claim that he rips him off, but that's not true. When you're ripping off someone else's work, you don't admit to it. DePalma proudly displays his affection for Hitch; he honors him with his work. DePalma's whole career is essentially a tribute to one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Best of the Year: 1997

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes)
A sexy ladies man wanders into a party, and discovers a beauty (Penelope Cruz) he cannot let go of. He flirts with her, and she flirts back, clearly interested. They connect. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, his ex stalks him. Soon, the ex offers our hero a ride home and their car almost immediately crashes down the overpass... and the story begins. This is a wild, mind-bending, sexy thriller, loaded with images and ideas I still cannot shake today. Cameron Crowe remade it with Tom Cruise (as well as Ms. Cruz in the same role, and Cameron Diaz as the vengeful ex), and as strong as Vanilla Sky was, it does not top this original wowser of a motion picture.

Air Force One
Two words: Kick ass. Some action films don't exactly get better after each viewing, but Air Force One is a rarity. This is a tight, macho, patriotic thriller featuring Harrison Ford, God bless him, as the President of the United States who doesn't want to be fucked with. Wolfgang Petersen is a fantastic visual director, and he frames the plane sequences with uncommon finesse. Equipped with terrific, quotable lines of dialogue, this is a smart, fast-paced, R-rated blockbuster. It's expensive Hollywood at its best.

When you can't breathe, you can't scream. With that tag line, you cannot go wrong with this ultra-campy horror film about a giant snake that terrorizes a documentary film crew and their ornery guide in the Amazon. Jennifer Lopez, in the same year as her breakthrough role in Selena, pulls no punches as the feisty leader of the troupe. Ice Cube provides tough, glowing support while Jon Voight is a perfectly nasty, over-the-top villain. This was a good movie until Voight was regurgitated from the snake and gave a wink to the audience -- at that point, Anaconda had become an instant favorite.

As Good As It Gets
This one took me a few viewings before I really warmed up to it. The key to the success of As Good As It Gets is its unabashedly plain and simple love story. Jack Nicholson really hits the right notes, not overdoing the OCD traits of his character, and not being too irascible or cranky. Understatement is a fine art, and Nicholson's Oscar-winning performance is masterful example. Helen Hunt is as radiant as she's ever been, and Greg Kinnear, an actor who gets better every time I see him, deftly manages to steal more than a few scenes from the heavyweights. A smile-inducing delight.

Boogie Nights
Epic in every sense of the word. Huge. Loud. Explosive. Sprawling. Magnificent! Mark Wahlberg is at the peak of his early career as an "up-and-coming" porn star and he is, as we are, immersed into the business of sleaze, drugs, and sex, sex, sex. Boogie Nights is a bold, ambitious drama, featuring the cast of all casts, including Hoffman, Hall, Reilly, Cheadle, Moore, Reynolds, Guzman, and Macy. Let it be known that their choreographer, a young P. T. Anderson, is a name synonymous with "electricity."

This thriller is pure muscle. Kurt Russell, an actor I never tire of seeing, plays a travelling yuppie whose new truck breaks down in the desert. When his wife goes missing shortly thereafter, the film turns into an intense yarn in which he battles with a sinister J.T. Walsh and his ruthless henchmen. Call it a latter-day Duel; call it an extremely competent debut for Jonathan Mostow; call it a crackling acting showcase for its two male leads. Or better yet, call Breakdown a superior action thriller, made to the finest order.

Con Air
It may very well be the last fun Bruckheimer film. Nicolas Cage is an absolute hoot in this popcorn action adventure that was made with its big fat tongue firmly planted in its cheek. Malkovich is a great, campy villain, and the "cool" supporting cast includes Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi (whose storyline with the little girl truly flirts with the edge), Colm Meaney, Danny Trejo, M.C. Gainey, Mykelti Williamson and John Cusack. Best line: "Put the bunny back in the box."

Another Robert Zemeckis winner, this movie owes a lot to the heartfelt, endearing performance by Jodie Foster. She creates an ambitious scientist who truly believes there is a voice in space and is determined to listen to it. James Woods, John Hurt, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Skerritt are all obstacles and bridges that ultimately bring her to an enriching, emotionally satisfying conclusion, not just for her, but the audience as well. This is a must see for true believers.

I will never forget this movie. I broke a sweat, nervously fidgeting in my seat while watching Cube, a very awesome Canadian thriller that features seven random individuals trapped in interlocking 14' x 14' cubes. Under only a deft hand would this be able to work, and alas, Vincenzo Natali pulls it off competently and, at times, brilliantly. A near masterpiece of its genre.

This year saw many great, kickass action films, and Face/Off is no exception. Poor pacing is the film's only glaring flaw, but everything from the clever storyline, glorious action sequences, and bravura acting make this one a ride impossible to forget. Travolta and Cage had such a great time playing these roles, and it was a blast watching them imitate one another. A daring original!

The Game
What a mind trip! Michael Douglas, easily one of our generation's finest actors and movie stars, excels in this playful, twisty, eye-opening thriller about a depressed millionaire who discovers that he is being played. And boy, what a wake-up call! Sure, it could never happen in real life, but it's the movies. And movies always pose the question: What if it *did* happen, and what if it happened to *you*? Sean Penn is fun as his unpredictable brother, but it's David Fincher's nervous, paranoid direction that makes The Game the coolest movie of the year.

The Ice Storm
Everything about The Ice Storm is perfect. The editing: not a single shot in this film does not belong here. The score: so melancholy, tearful, and genuine. The cinematography: have you ever felt so chilled? The acting: after only one viewing, I had already remembered every character's name, which is a feat only great performers can handle. The Ice Storm is like a photograph; look as hard as you may for a false light, but the portrait is sadly real in its icy perfection. One of my all-time favorites.

Jackie Brown
Quentin Tarantino needs to make more movies. There's something so unique and original about his talent as a filmmaker, and I cannot quite place my finger on it. Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece of epic proportions; it created a rash of new ideas and concepts in Hollywood cinema. Jackie Brown is a worthy follow-up; a quiet, sincere character piece that combines elements of brilliant acting, fresh, fascinating lines of dialogue, and a narrative so playful, it screams Tarantino.

Starship Troopers
Paul Verhoeven's metaphorical science-fiction thriller riled and roused me in its timely messages, hardcore violence, and sheer audacity. In this wild mixture of propaganda, sci-fi horror, and Beverly Hills 90210, we witness a conundrum of Nazi-esque characters, killer arachnids, and sexually charged beauties. One reason I admired it so much is that I've never seen anything like it. "Do you want to know more?"

The Sweet Hereafter
It's the mood, you see. Forget the story, the actors, the setting -- it's the dark, dreamy, melancholy mood that makes Atom Egoyan's harrowingly affecting film so heartbreaking. Sure, the story is indeed compelling, especially in its non-linear way of being told, and Ian Holm is devastating as the link that brings all the pieces together. But the patient editing, the graceful camera movements, and the characters' solemnity are strokes of fine filmmaking.

Titanic is a great piece of pop entertainment. I think it's fabulous that the whole world universally embraced this untimely love story and incredible history lesson. James Cameron is a technical genius, and Leo and Kate deservedly became huge stars. Titanic is worthy of many accolades and awards, and it deserves a place in world cinema. However, I've seen the film about 10 times and, frankly, that's enough. I don't want to see it again for another 20 years.

Honorable Mention
Affliction; Eve's Bayou; Good Will Hunting; Gridlock'd; Insomnia; Life is Beautiful; Men with Guns; Night Falls on Manhattan; Scream 2; Selena; The Spanish Prisoner; Welcome to Sarajevo

Friday, June 3, 2011

Quick Takes: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One, Rabbit Hole, Somewhere

It's the beginning of the end. The muggles are back in the final episode of J.K. Rowling's sprawling, magical series about a boy wizard and his friends escaping from the danger of he-who-shall-not-be-named. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One (2010), our favorite threesome (Harry, Ron and Hermione, all grown up) begin their search for the ever-elusive horcruxes. We do not want to know what unspeakable horror will occur should Voldemort obtain these horcruxes before our heroes do, so the race is on. Part One is mostly a waiting game, an intense, introspective episode in which our vulnerable gang plots their next move and goes into hiding. The story suffers from a bit of inertia but it more than makes up for it by building sheer suspense as Voldemort's end game hurtles closer by the hour. You just know the shit is going to hit the fan in Part Two.

Meanwhile, Part One takes a breather from Hogwarts and Quidditch matches (a refreshing change of pace and locale from the rest of the series), but still manages to have its own share of fun and magic. Case in point: a delightful set piece in the Ministry of Magic involving the retrieval of a locket held by Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, wonderful as always). When the gang uses the polyjuice potion to disguise themselves, the scenes that follow are among the most enjoyable I've seen all year.

Needless to say, Part Two cannot come any sooner. 4/5

When Rabbit Hole (2010) ended, I sighed in relief. I was kind of dreading this film about a couple who copes with the death of their 4-year-old son. My son is about the same age, and the idea of anything like this happening to him just tears me up. Well, thankfully, Rabbit Hole avoids showing any scenes of the son or his death (the entire film takes place 8 months after the incident). I was pleased to discover a beautiful and thoughtful drama about a couple trying so hard to hold everything together. I've always been a fan of Nicole Kidman, but her plastic face gets harder to watch every year (why beautiful actresses do this to their faces just boggles the mind). No doubt, she's terrific here, but is overshadowed by Aaron Eckhart (who continues to grow as an actor; he's superb here) and especially Dianne Wiest. She gave the best supporting actress performance of the year, moving me to tears as Kidman's mother who experienced a similar loss years ago. (Also, note to Kidman: Take a good look at Wiest. That's how you age gracefully).

Rabbit Hole is not a great movie, but it's a very, very good one. I'm just relieved it's not as depressing as I thought it would be. 4/5

At the same time, I'm relieved that Somewhere (2010) is over. While I wouldn't go so far to say that it's a bad movie, but let's just say that it was the longest 100 minutes I have had the recent displeasure of sitting through. Sofia Coppola directed this meandering drama about a hotshot actor (Stephen Dorff) who, as depicted in the opening scene, is going in circles. Every relationship he has is meaningless, everything he does is routine, mundane, ordinary. His pampered lifestyle may be desired by many, but he clearly he has no passion or care about his craft and his fortune. When his 11-year-old daughter comes into the picture, Dorff's character finally has a sense of some kind of purpose.

This is an Art film, clearly. Anyone who desires some kind of narrative will be disappointed. For what it's worth, even I appreciate a thoughtful, quiet film that doesn't need to say much (Van Sant's Gerry comes to mind). So why did I find Somewhere to be a mind-numbing bore? Simply enough, I think the characters are bland. Dorff and Elle Fanning are decent actors (though they really haven't done anything great in their careers just yet) but they could not breathe life into these aimless, uninteresting souls. So why should we care?

The tone of Somewhere reminded me of Coppola's far superior Lost in Translation. In that one, two lonely souls in a distant land far from home make an unlikely connection. Somewhere is not too far off from that description, but Lost in Translation had humor, spontaneity, spark, and two characters who were willing to take some risks. Murray and Johannson had the kind of chemistry that Dorff and Fanning only wish they had.

I always watch a movie all the way to the end. If I turned off Somewhere halfway through, I wouldn't have missed a thing. 1.5/5

Thursday, June 2, 2011

TV Report Card: 2010/2011

Report cards are in!

The end of May marks the end of the network TV season. Since cable operates under a different schedule, there really is no precise start/end to the overall TV season. But this is the best time to assess, really, since all of my rotating shows have wrapped. My DVR is officially on hiatus.

What a lackluster season it's been! I knew I'd feel the void left by Lost, 24 and The Shield last year, but I didn't think it would be this depressing. I usually like to litter my DVR with A-level shows but this year I settled with too many low B's and C's. I felt very indifferent about many of my long-running favorites.

Let's break it down, shall we?

Parenthood, Season 2 = A+
Friday Night Lights, Season 5 = A+
Modern Family, Season 2 = A
Men of a Certain Age, Season 2, Part 1 = A-
The Walking Dead, Season 1 = A-

There were only five shows in the entire year where I felt excited to be watching them. I couldn't wait for the next installment. They were truly must-see TV. Faithful readers will know which two are my favorites. After an uneven and unfocused debut last season, Parenthood came together beautifully during this second season. Showrunner Jason Katims crafted some memorable and delicate arcs for the Braverman family this year, showcasing some fine performances all around, especially its young cast members.

Katims also anchored the final season of Friday Night Lights, which did not disappoint. The writers had a chance to craft satisfying storylines that sent our characters off to their lives after high school football. This season reminded me so much of the first one, and that's how you end a series. Bring it full circle! The marriage of Eric and Tami Taylor is the most realistic and heartfelt I have ever seen on television. I cannot wait to see Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton in new projects. Texas forever!

Modern Family, only in its sophomore season, continues to impress. Without fail, it's the only sitcom on the air that makes me laugh out loud week after week. I hope the writers can keep it going for a long, long time.

Men of a Certain Age also enjoyed a nice return for its second season. I really dig its laid back vibe and gentle humor. Ray Romano, Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula are truly delightful to watch as they stumble through work, marriage and life in general. It's a sweet and thoughtful drama. TNT only aired 6 episodes this winter, with the remaining 6 slated for this summer. I don't like this splitting-up-the season technique, but I guess that's how they roll.

And the best new show of the year goes to The Walking Dead, a frightening series about a group of humans who struggle to survive as zombies take over the population. We've seen all of this before in popular films, but never as a recurring series. The pacing allows the characters to breathe life into a familiar story as we slowly learn why and how the "walkers" came to fruition. I cannot wait for season 2 of this intoxicating, slow burn thriller.

Dexter, Season 5 = B+
Louie, Season 1 = B

From its start, I've had a love/hate relationship with Dexter. It was never really a great show in my eyes. Poor character development and predictable arcs always kept Dexter down. The stories involving Laguerta and Batista are weak and inconsistent. Remember Doakes from the earlier seasons? He was the most grating buffoon to ever grace cable television! What did make the show work was Dexter himself, whose moral compass always made for fascinating viewing. Last season's central arc -- featuring John Lithgow as a fellow serial killer who went toe-to-toe with Dexter -- was the series high point. I was worried that this season wouldn't be able to live up to that, but pleasantly enough, it held up just fine. Julia Stiles was a welcome addition to the show this year, but Dexter really got moving when Peter Weller showed up in the last half of the season. Even after 5 seasons, the writers still impressively manage to keep the premise intriguing.

I was weary about Louie when I gave it a shot last fall but I stuck with it and I'm glad I did. It's one of the most unconventional sitcoms I've ever seen. There is no concrete narrative here. It's like performance art disguised as a sitcom. We're watching comedian Louis C.K. in a series of vignettes that correlate to his stand up routines. Even for a show on FX, this is dark, racy stuff. Louie is also surprisingly moving and bracingly funny. Consider me hooked.

Glee, Season 2 = B-
How I Met Your Mother, Season 6 = B-

This is where things went downhill. Glee proved to be the most disappointing of all of my shows this year because it had the most potential. Season 1 was fun, fresh and just wildly different from anything else on TV. Season 2 saw Sue become a tiresome, grating character and, along the way, Will Schuester turned into a stiff. While it was touching to see the Glee club put together a fitting tribute for Sue's deceased sister, I felt no empathy for her character. She has become so wildly over the top that she hardly ever appears human. Emma Pillsbury barely registered this season; her arc with John Stamos happened offscreen (what a waste!) and are we supposed to feel something as she continues to pine for Will? Even the guests overstayed their welcome. Gwyneth Paltrow was fabulous during her first appearance early in the season, but her inevitable return wasn't nearly as magical. (Ditto for the boozy Kristen Chenowith.) The kids and their music are still the heart of the show and they kept me entertained enough to keep me from tuning out. I dug the Britney and Madonna tributes (as well as the recent Mellencamp hour), but the majority of the musical set pieces this season felt very run-of-the-mill. I'm hoping a few game changers will shake things up because in the years to come, I'm not so sure how much more patience I will have with the jagged plotting and character inconsistencies.

On the upside, How I Met Your Mother reversed its downward spiral that started during season 5 (a dreadful, forgettable year), thanks to fresh and exciting new arcs this season. John Lithgow's turn as Barney's father was inspired casting and nicely handled by the writers and Neil Patrick Harris. The death of Marshall's dad injected new blood into the series and gave the show much needed gravitas (we always knew NPH was a star, but watching Jason Segal emerge as one is incredibly satisfying). However, the less said about Zoey and the writers' tiresome quest to tease us about the "mother," the better. I've learned not to focus too much how Ted eventually becomes Bob Saget and who the mystery woman of the show's title will be.

Rescue Me, Season 6, Part 1 = C+
Grey's Anatomy, Season 7 = C+
Desperate Housewives, Season 7 = C

These shows have worn out their welcome. I've grown tired of Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Rescue Me, but at least Rescue Me knows that it's time to go. This summer, FX will air its final season. The last few seasons have been wildly inconsistent, though the latest did have its share of funny and shocking moments. The show will always be remembered for its camaraderie between the firefighters at the station house. Some of their conversations are raunchy and truly hilarious, and this is what gave the show its heart.

And when will Grey's Anatomy hang up its stethoscope? I had to bow out of ER simply because it grew tiresome, and I'm hoping I don't have to do the same for Grey's. This season saw some of their strongest arcs in a while -- the aftereffects of last year's hospital shooting; the Alzheimer trials and how it affects Meredith, Derek, and the chief's wife; the unique triangle between Callie, Arizona and Sloan. All strong stuff. The musical episode landed with a resounding thud while the overpopulated hospital continues to ignore interesting characters like Jesse and Lexie and focus too much time on Christina, Owen and Teddy. In light of a strong finale, I'll give Grey's another season before deciding to jump ship.

Ditto for Desperate Housewives, which I'm surprised I'm still watching to this day. I do have to give it credit, though. It's engaging, sometimes funny, and the girls look fabulous. The addition of Vanessa Williams is an inspired one -- her character has grown a bit throughout the season, and I like her more than Dana Delaney or Nicollette Sheridan. But everything else is just stale. Case in point: the central murder mystery dates back to season one, involving Paul Young and Felicia Tillman. Could the show possibly out date itself any further? Tom and Lynette are still my two favorite characters, but even this year, I was growing weary of Lynette's overstepping of her boundaries. And the less said about Gabrielle's switched-at-birth storyline, the better. The writers need to plant a bomb on Wisteria Lane and kill everyone off. That'll shake things up. Or better yet, the network just needs to cancel the show. Everyone here is looking desperate, indeed.

Mr. Sunshine, Season 1 = D

Mr. Sunshine was a dud. With a cast that included Matthew Perry and Allison Janney, I was so hoping it would improve but it became really tough to watch. As talented as these folks are, the show just wasn't funny.

It won't be back next year, but there are a lot of new shows debuting this fall. I'm unsure which ones I'll try out, but hopefully next year's report card will see more A's.


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