Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hidden Treasure: Leap of Faith

From the mid 80s through the most of the 90s, Steve Martin had an impressive range of career choices. Some were well-crafted crowd-pleasers (Parenthood, Father of the Bride), some critically acclaimed (LA Story, Roxanne), and some heavily dramatic fare (The Spanish Prisoner, Grand Canyon). There was one movie during that time period that doesn't fit in either of these categories and yet I think it features one of Martin's most interesting and underrated performances. In 1992's Leap of Faith, Martin plays a traveling evangelist named Jonas Nightengale who, by a twist of fate (or was it?), lands in small-town Kansas where every resident is in need of a miracle. Yes, Lord, they need a miracle!

This is not a great film. It's uneven, has a weak third act, and undercooked storylines. But I cannot deny that Leap of Faith is survived - almost solely - by a dark, rousing performance by one of the funniest men alive. Martin has done plenty of drama before - most notably in 1991's superb Grand Canyon - but this one is different. Jonas Nightengale is at personal crossroads in life. He knows what he does for people. He puts on a good show, makes people laugh, maybe even makes them feel good about themselves. On the other hand, Nightengale is a fake, a fraud who capitalizes on the problems of everyday people and cashes in on them. But hey, he's not hurting anybody. He's just making a (dis)honest buck.

Martin is revelatory up on that stage. It's a serious performance; he's not playing it for laughs, though you can't help but grin at Martin's manic energy. These preachers are animated and passionate performers, and Martin nails it. Jonas Nightengale is a man on a mission. He is out to heal! He is out to put faith into these people's lives, to make them believe it will all get better. The Lord is looking out for you, but you gotta believe! You gotta believe in the Lord almighty!

I wish this performance lived in a better film. Leap of Faith is not at all bad; in fact, the film deeply engaging as we follow Nightengale and his crew perform their magic tricks. We watch as the spotters discreetly gather pertinent, personal information from the audience so Nightengale can pump it back at them. Debra Winger plays Jane, Nightengale's front woman, who sits behind computers and TV screens and orchestrates the great Jesus magic show. This is one well-oiled event; the townspeople walk away with hope in their hearts and Nightengale and his crew leave with cash in their pockets.

I liked the relationship between Winger and Martin. You sense they have a long history together and most likely a complex one. The rest of the supporting cast is one note, with half-baked subplots that go nowhere. Liam Neeson is the sheriff who is suspicious of the whole affair, but ends up falling for Jane. There is a huge chunk of story missing there; I have a sinking feeling many of their scenes were cut, most likely in favor of the story of Lolita Davidovich's tough waitress Marva and her crippled young brother Boyd, played by Lukas Haas. Nightingale falls for her, but Marva resists. She doesn't believe his phony act. This sets the wheels in motion for Nightengale's unraveling.

In addition to those terrific actors, Leap of Faith also features too little of Philip Seymour Hoffman, M.C. Gainey and Meat Loaf as part of Nightengale's crew. I would have enjoyed a heavier focus on them, Jane and Nightengale, traveling from town to town, struggling with the ethics of what they do yet still enjoy making these people feel good. Now that I think of it, this could have made an interesting TV show.

Despite the myriad of problems, though, Leap of Faith is an entertaining film filled with strong ideas, a simple message, fantastic gospel music and an unforgettable tour-de-force performance by an actor who's hasn't been known for his "acting" in quite some time. Steve Martin has made a lot of great films over the years, but Leap of Faith is one of the precious few where he's not playing Steve Martin.

Monday, September 26, 2011

TV Report Card: Summer 2011

Summer is over and so are the short summer runs of a few TV shows I enjoy watching. We said goodbye for good to two of them, one with some bittersweetness and the other none too soon.

I was really sad to learn that TNT was not picking up a third season of Men of a Certain Age. This past summer's run was every bit as funny, gentle and sweet as its debut season in 2009. The premise was simple yet rife with possibility. Three best friends (Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher, perfectly cast and looking better than ever) lean on one another as they not-so-gently ease their way past their prime. Joe, Owen and Terry and their coworkers and loved ones will be terribly missed. Thanks for 22 beautiful episodes. Season 2: 4.5/5. Entire series: 4.5/5

Rescue Me, on the other hand, wore out its welcome many years ago. One tragedy after another for Tommy Gavin became too much to bear. His relationships with Sheila and ex-wife Janet became repetitive and utterly tiresome. I know Denis Leary is the star of the show (and its creator and main writer) but sometimes I wish he would spread the wealth on his co-stars more often. I grew weary of "The Tommy Gavin Show" around season 3 (I'm not sure what the last straw was: the death of his brother, his young son or his father). I stuck with it to the end because the show did have its endearingly entertaining moments, most notably in the firehouse with the guys. Their camaraderie was fresh and oftentimes brutally funny. Rescue Me used to be great (especially when it dealt with the effects of 9/11), but it lost its spark too soon. Season 7: 2.5/5. Entire series: 3/5.

I'm thrilled that FX is continuing its relationship with Louis C.K. and his increasingly brilliant and subversive comedy, Louie. This half-hour laugher just wrapped its second season and Louis C.K. is already hard at work for a third go-around next year. Louie is unlike anything else on television - the narrative is fractured, the humor alternates from dark to silly on a whim, and in this groundbreaking season, the emotions ran high as Louie dealt with close brushes with death, a deep longing for Pamela, and realizations on what is important in life. No "sitcom" that I know of dares to be as thoughtful and life-affirming as Louie does. Season 2: 5/5. Entire series to date: 4.5/5.

The Glee Project was a huge surprise. I had low hopes for this reality contest in which wannabe Glee fans audition and compete for a guest spot on Fox's mega-hit. I'm not a fan of reality programming; I used to dabble in an Idol here or a Survivor there, but my programming regimen is about 98% scripted. But I gave Glee Project a shot and I'm very thankful. It's easily the best reality program I've ever had the pleasure of following and it has enhanced my appreciation and enthusiasm for Glee itself. All of the judges of The Glee Project -- Ryan Murphy, Robert Ulrich, Zach Woodlee -- are major behind-the-scenes players on Glee, and they are insightful, thoughtful, and more importantly, hugely entertaining to watch. They really cared about these kids. And these contestants are nothing to sneeze at -- all four winners are talented, bright individuals who will fit right in the Glee universe. This first season of The Glee Project was filled with twists, surprises and suspense; in other words, it blew American Idol out of the water. Season 1: 4.5/5

The thing I learned as a loyal Curb Your Enthusiasm viewer is that I can't judge every episode the same way. Sometimes everything comes together perfectly: the plot, the pacing, the amount of laughs, everything. Most often, however, they do not. Sometimes I'll marvel how wonderfully structured the episode is but find it lacking in the laughs department. Sometimes I'll laugh all the way through, but plot-wise it just didn't gel.

This season saw two episodes that were just right: Palestinian Chicken (easily a top 3 episode of all-time) and Mister Softee. Those were classic, perfect Curbs. The other 8 episodes are a mixed bag but now that I think of it, I may have "laughed" more this season than I did during last season's popular Seinfeld arc. In a nutshell, after 8 seasons (!), it appears to me that Larry David and his band of cynical misfits are as good as they've ever been. Season 8: 4/5. Entire series to date: 4/5.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quick Takes: Lightning Round Edition

I've seen so many titles in the past several weeks and neither of them are compelling enough for me to write about at great length. They aren't all necessarily terrible; in fact, most of these are either surprisingly good or simply not-half-bad. So instead of doing the usual Quick Takes on them, I'll knock 'em out in lightning round fashion.

First, the attack of the one word movie titles! In an odd coincidence, many of the movies I've seen in the past month have one word titles. The best three of the bunch: Contagion (2011) is the new Steven Soderbergh thriller about a virus that wipes out millions of lives across the world. It's engaging and suspenseful (don't touch your face, dammit!), beautifully shot, and very well cast. It's like a more cerebral version of Outbreak. 3.5/5

I was loving Rango (2011) for a long time - it was dark, witty and utterly hilarious. But unfortunately, the problem with director Gore Verbinski is that he does not know when to stop. The film just kept piling on the story and action while I was growing restless in my seat. The film would have benefited greatly from a 30 minute trim. Other than that glaring flaw, it's adorable. 3.5/5

David Schwimmer directed Trust (2011), a smart, potent drama about a 14-year-old girl who is raped by an online predator. Clive Owen and Catherine Keener are her parents. It's a hard film to watch, but it is a subtle, perceptive and thought-provoking film, well worth a look. 3.5/5

Limitless (2011) is a dumb movie about smart people. I like Bradley Cooper enough, but I don't think he has what it takes to be a leading man. I just haven't been blown away by him yet. It's engaging but instantly forgettable. 2.5/5

Also forgettable but surprisingly funny is Arthur (2011), the unnecessary remake of the Dudley Moore classic. Forget the plot; the main attraction is Russell Brand. When he's the center of attention in public, I can't stand him. But when he's performing (whether in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Get Him to the Greek or here), he is a treat to watch. It's one-note acting, I know, but strangely enough, I have yet to grow tired of Brand and his shtick. 3/5

I haven't enjoyed Matthew McConaghey in a movie since he first played a lawyer in 1993's A Time to Kill. His return to the courtroom in The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) isn't as memorable as that older film (I continue to quote Sam Jackson as often as possible: "Yes, they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell!"), but The Lincoln Lawyer is a solid, reliable genre piece that peters out before its unsatisfying climax. 3/5

The only reason I rented The Perfect Host (2011) was to see David Hyde Pierce in a leading role in a thriller. It just seemed so against type. This is Niles Crane, for crying out loud! The film is interesting and has many surprises (the last act twist was nifty, despite huge gaps of plausibility), and Pierce looks like he's having fun with a crazy-ass role. Unfortunately, the film is paper thin. There's nothing here but smoke and mirrors. 2.5/5

I have grown tired of Kate Hudson long ago and watching her in Something Borrowed (2011) made me want to do unspeakable things. I didn't expect to like this movie, but I also didn't expect it to make me so angry. Who are these people? How does any self-respecting audience member relate to them? Every character seems to react to love in such bizarre and unnatural ways. For instance, when Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) tells Darcy (Hudson) at the end of the film that she misses her, I wanted to scream, "Why?!" What is it exactly about Darcy that she misses? None of these people deserve each other. I wanted to sic Sam Jackson on each and every one of them. 1/5

As Mel Gibson picks up whatever is left of his show biz career, he delivers his best work in more than a decade with The Beaver (2011), a risky, though somewhat successful directorial effort from his former Maverick co-star, Jodie Foster. Depression is a tricky subject to tackle but Gibson and Foster take it very seriously and the result is surprisingly moving. 3.5/5

Too Big To Fail (2011) managed to take a topic as dry as a hedge fund prospectus and make it entertaining. Curtis Hanson deftly handles this brisk, star-studded HBO affair that simplifies the infamous bank bailout of 2008. Everyone has a chance to shine, but William Hurt is a terrific standout as a weary, exhausted Hank Paulson. 3.5/5

And finally, I completed the second season of In Treatment (2009), the unconventional HBO series with Gabriel Byrne as psychiatrist Paul Weston listening to a series of patients on a weekly basis. It took almost 2 months for me get through all 45 episodes, and while it's a compelling and thoughtful series, season 2 wasn't as gripping as the first one. His most engrossing patient involved Oliver, a young boy struggling with his weight gain, being bullied, and handling the volatile split of his clueless parents. This arc allowed Byrne (the show's biggest asset who had too little to do this season) to step out of his strict regimen of maintaining a professional relationship with his clients and become an endearing father figure to Oliver. It culminates in a sweet, emotional finale. The show's third and final season should be on DVD soon and I look forward to losing myself in Paul Weston's conflicted world one last time. Season 2: 3.5/5. Entire series so far: 4/5

Monday, September 19, 2011

Musings Through Filtered Ears #7

A series of random thoughts by a new Qwikster addict...

Evolution is necessary
When I got the mass email this morning from Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, and saw that it was a big fat mea culpa and alerted us of major changes coming, I really thought it was spam. Hastings has been pretty smart in building his business since Netflix started back in the late 90s (I've been a very happy subscriber since the near beginning) and this announcement seemed not only sudden (especially after the recent price hike) but unusually risky. When I soon realized that this was real, that these changes are actually happening, my initial thought was: this man is driving this company into the ground. It just smelled fishy: the company's stock was tumbling, users were abandoning ship after the DVD/streaming price split, and customers were just pissed off. It just seemed like a cheap attempt to appease to the stock's shareholders and do away with the stagnant DVD business.

Since that email this morning, I had time to think about this new change coming up and I now feel the same the way I felt after this summer's price split: I can roll with it. Netflix, and the industry it is in, are both evolving, and the changes are more than the company can handle. Hastings is right - Netflix sucks at communicating. They seem to favor making changes without explaining motive (removing the friends feature, for one) or even elaborate how they are willing to make their customers happy. I mean, are they even listening to us? The "apology" in the email feels a bit empty, but bottom line: I do feel the actions taking place in the near future feels right.

The DVD part of Netflix is perfect, there's nothing to improve. I think it's more than fairly priced, the selection is unending, and the turnaround is nearly instantaneous. Like I said earlier, I've been a very happy customer for over 10 years, and I'm thinking I will be a happy customer when I log onto Qwikster every day. As long as they don't change too much in that aspect, I see nothing to complain about. It's a business decision. It really doesn't affect me as a customer except for the URL name on my browser, the logo on the envelope and the name on my credit card bill. All these changes are cosmetic.

The new Netflix, on the other hand, has a lot of work to do. Putting its entire focus on streaming is smart business. They need more - and better - content, though it has significantly improved since last year. The amount of TV shows available to stream is satisfactory - my son loves Dora the Explorer, Thomas and Friends and Sesame Street, and has a large selection of episodes to choose from. I'm working my way through Damages now and will catch up with Mad Men and Breaking Bad pretty soon. The movies, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The older catalogue titles are far more impressive than their new releases, but that's why I still use the discs. I take advantage of the best of both worlds and there's a breadth of choices available for me.

The new Netflix also needs to focus on subtitling their streaming content across all platforms. They are providing more shows/movies with captions each day but I cannot yet access them through my Blu-ray player.

The amount of vitriol I'm reading on these changes is laughable but I understand that nobody likes changes. I can adapt to these minor cosmetic fixes while the business restructures itself to better serve their customers. Some people may not agree but the combined $25 a month I spend on 3 discs at a time and unlimited streaming is an absolute steal. Whatever I need to do in order to continue enjoying this great service(s), count me in.

Everyone is a winner
Some thoughts on last night's entertaining Primetime Emmy awards:

*Host Jane Lynch was hit-and-miss. She's not a stand up comedian and some of her jokes fell flat, but I did enjoy her opening act and a few quips here and there. Her best line: "A lot of people are curious why I'm a lesbian. Ladies and gentlemen, the cast of Entourage."

*Big, big yahoos on the two major wins for the dearly departed Friday Night Lights: best writing for creator Jason Katims and best actor Kyle Chandler. It is so great these guys are recognized and seeing this show go out on top.

*The early part of the Emmys really did turn into the Modern Family Awards Show. Well-deserved wins for writing, comedy series, and the delightful Dunphy folks, Ty Burell and Julie Bowen.

*I don't watch Justified or Mike & Molly, but I was thrilled for Margo Martindale and Melissa McCarthy. Martindale is an extraordinary character actress who has been in the business for years and I hear she's fantastic in Justified. I can't wait to catch up with it. And I've been in love with McCarthy since her days on Gilmore Girls. I haven't even seen Bridesmaids but I already know how adorable she is.

*The best comedy actress presentation was hilarious. These 6 women are equally gifted and well worthy of many awards, and it was so great to see them all take the stage.

*Charlie Sheen's kind words for his cast and crew of Two and a Half Men seemed unbelievably hammy. I don't think anyone believed a single word of it. I'm surprised Fox cut the Baldwin/News Corp joke and still let Sheen take the stage. So much for good taste.

*What was Julianna Margulies wearing? And did anyone actually hear Julie Bowen and Kate Winslet accept their awards on the stage? I was too busy staring at their bare chests.

All in all: fun show, strong winners. I skipped the reality portion and zapped through the commercials and walks to the podium so the 3-hour Emmy telecast was a 90 minute breeze. Gotta love DVR's!

Friday, September 16, 2011

In Defense Of: Radio Flyer

This is the third and last piece this week celebrating the works of Richard Donner. Click here and here to view the other two posts.

History is all in the mind of the teller.
                                                    --older Mikey (Tom Hanks)

When I first saw 1992's Radio Flyer as a young teenager, i had a clear idea of what the film was about. A mother and her two young boys leave home in New Jersey to start a new life in California. Mom (Lorraine Bracco) meets a new man who calls himself The King, and marries him. The boys don't like The King, and he does bad things to Bobby (Joseph Mazzello). Bobby has nowhere else to turn, so with the help of his big brother Mikey (Elijah Wood), they create a flying machine out of a wagon, and Bobby flies away. He can finally be happy again. Bobby sends postcards to Mike from the countries he had visited. He was saved by his big brother.

Sure, I was a naive 12-year-old, but that's what I got out of it. I loved it. What kid doesn't dream of flying away?

Then I saw the film again as an adult many years later and I saw layers I had never seen before. The abuse was more extreme than I imagined. The themes of isolation were more prevelant. Throughout the film, there was a great sense of dread. There were more than a few subtle hints that Bobby didn't survive in the end.

I'm sure this has happened to everyone. You watch a movie during your childhood and then again later in life. Most often, it is like watching an entirely different movie altogether. What makes Radio Flyer so unique, however, is that my altered perspective did not change my opinion of the film in the slightest bit. My childlike interpretation of the movie still works, as does my mature, adult viewpoint. That's the secret. That's what makes Radio Flyer a special film. I love it now as much as I loved it then. There is just no wrong way to view this movie.

Radio Flyer was slaughtered by critics. It tanked in the box office. It's a blip in the careers of Wood, Mazzello, Bracco, John Heard, Tom Hanks, writer David Mickey Evans and director Richard Donner. It's a shame because it needs to be seen with an open perspective. A older kid can enjoy it without knowing too much about what really happened to Bobby. And an adult can appreciate the real beauty of the film: the magical bond between two brothers, strengthened during troubling times.

Roger Ebert, a professional critic whose opinion I greatly respect, is very close-minded about this one. He writes, "The movie is a real squirmarama of unasked and unanswered questions. Who is this movie made for?" He mirrored the thoughts of many others in that it is tonally confused. Is it a fantasy for kids? Or is it a drama about child abuse for adults? My answers: Yes and yes. Radio Flyer is a multifaceted film, a rare, thoughtful story that caters to two very different audiences.

There are a few interpretations of the film's final scenes and, frankly, any of them will work. If you are a young teen, maybe 11 or 12 (the film doesn't work for kids younger than that), Bobby did fly away. He escaped from the bad man in his life and started anew.

For older teens and adults, it's clear that the older Mike made up the ending. "History is all in the mind of the teller," he tells us. Bobby is no longer with us. Did he crash in the flyer, or was he beaten to death by The King? Well, let me ask you: does it matter? The truth is that Bobby tried to run away, he tried to escape, and he just couldn't. Bobby's death was inevitable.

This is dark, heavy stuff. It's all too common in this world. Children are abused and sometimes there's no one there to help them. The mother in this situation loved her two boys, but she either had no knowledge of what was happening or, more likely, she had no courage or strength to put a stop to it. His brother can only do so much, and it's clear that as he got older, he filled his mind with some fiction that made Bobby's life story easier to swallow. Mike wasn't ready to tell his kids the real truth. He wasn't ready to face the truth himself.

That's just my interpretation, and who's to say it's right or wrong? There's a theory floating around stating that Bobby is a figment of Mike's imagination. There is no Bobby. Mike was the one who got beaten up, built the machine to escape, and eventually became a pilot and learned to fly (which explains why the film opens and closes on an air field). It's sketchy, but I'll buy it. There are scenes and lines in the movie that can be interpreted as such.

Evans and Donner leave enough loose ends dangling to allow us to figure it out ourselves. It's a puzzle, but not necessarily a perplexing one. I'd say it's more like a comforting puzzle. Radio Flyer shows us just enough to give us the big picture.

And isn't that something special?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Greats: Maverick

This is the second of three posts this week celebrating the works of Richard Donner. Click here and here for the other two posts.

I recently made a list of my five favorite Richard Donner films and, some time down the road, I'll probably do the same list for westerns. At the top of the westerns list will be the same title on top of Donner's list: 1994's Maverick. Some of you are crying foul, I'm sure. What about Unforgiven? The Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns? The Wild Bunch? John Wayne! Frankly, you can take all of those. Mr. Maverick is number one with a bullet. Allow me to break it down for you.

First of all, I'm not a fan of westerns. It's probably my least favorite genre in cinema only because it is so limited to what it can do. How many westerns have you seen had the following cliches? The lone cowboy butting into situations that don't pertain to him. The gunfight/fistfight on the streets with nervous townspeople looking on. A scene in a bar where shots of whiskey are served and/or the bottles are smashed to pieces. Lingering shots of men on horses slowly passing through gorgeous landscapes. I could go on and on. Without fail, these scenes are in every western. I'm just bored of watching the same recycled scenarios. (Horror is no better, honestly, but I think you can be more creative when it comes to blood and gore.)

When I saw the dour and lifeless Cowboys and Aliens this summer, I was trying to think of westerns that were actually fun. Back to the Future Part 3 had the typical cliches, for sure, but at least the film toyed with the usual conventions by including the loopy element of time travel. Then you have Blazing Saddles, which I am always reminded of whenever I see cowboys sitting around a campfire. And don't get me wrong. Recent entries of the western canon, like True Grit, Open Range, Appaloosa, and 3:10 to Yuma are all damned fine films. But where's the fun?

That makes Maverick the single most entertaining entry in the entire western genre. It has all of the cliches you would expect but Maverick actually makes them feel fresh again. Renowned screenwriter William Goldman (no stranger to westerns, having penned the iconic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) manages to make Maverick a rollicking good time, filled to the brim with cons within a con, colorful villains, fantastic poker scenes, and more than a few tricks up its sleeve. Maverick is more of an adventure than a western, taking us from town to town as our beleaguered hero (Mel Gibson) tries to collect enough money so he can enter a high stakes poker tournament. Along the way, he falls for a sly thief (Jodie Foster) and encounters resistance from a sheriff (James Garner, the original Bret Maverick in the TV series). Like Mission: Impossible, Maverick updated the elements of its popular TV show counterpart and made its own rules for the big screen. Despite having never seen the TV show, it is still fun for me to see the old Maverick play against the new one. The witty banter between the two men and the vixen that comes between them is a great, energetic thrill, its tongue planted firmly between cheeks.

Being an outsider when it comes to westerns, I missed out on all of the cameos and references. Actors like Leo Gordon, Denver Pyle, Robert Fuller, James Drury, so beloved in the old school classics of TV's past, are given the royal treatment in Maverick. The film is a love letter to those enjoyed those serials back in the day. Even though I'm not in that particular fan club, I can still appreciate what Goldman and Donner have done here. Even Donner himself had a hand in those serials in the 60s. It's hard not to embrace the love and affection displayed on screen.

And Donner really has fun with it. He not only employed those famous cowboys in the film, but some of his own former actors in blink-and-you'll-miss-'em roles. Danny Glover, Gibson's co-star in Donner's Lethal Weapon series, appears as a bank robber in the beginning of the film. The two actors stare at one another as if they recognize each other. It's a cute gag, all in good fun. Donner also cast Margot Kidder in a brief part as a nun. Kidder, as we know, was Lois Lane in his Superman. Hell, he even put his own wife (uber-producer Lauren Shuler-Donner) in a walk-on part. On Maverick, it's all in the family!

He and Goldman toy marvelously with the storytelling structure. The first half is a flashback, while the second half is told in "real time." This gives the film a greater sense of urgency, a larger element of surprise. They also utilize Maverick's voiceover to hilarious effect. Upon meeting Alfred Molina's Angel, Gibson voices, "From the moment I slapped eyes on this hombre, I smelled trouble. And refried beans."

The stars are irresistible. The camera loves Mel Gibson. I don't think he has ever looked as good as he does here. Gibson oozes charisma in every scene, and it is only fitting that he is playing (spoiler alert!) James Garner's son. Garner's been acting in front of a camera since the mid 50's and he's as effortlessly charming in the new Maverick as he was in the old one. 40 years of experience and that 'ol Jim Rockford's still got it.

And Jodie Foster, who inexplicably drew the most criticism for her work here, has never been this light-footed. After winning Oscars for such heavy, wrenching performances from Silence of the Lambs and The Accused, it's a refreshing joy to see her in such a buoyant, almost ethereal role as ditzy, determined petty thief Annabelle Bransford. Her gorgeous angelic face complements Gibson's chiseled good looks. (I got a little thrill watching the two of them together again in this year's The Beaver, in which they played a married couple.)

Graham Greene stops by in a brief scene as Joseph, an Indian who is paid handsomely by a wealthy tycoon to act like, well, an Indian. The face paint, the feathers, the whole get up, is all an act. Greene's contemporary mannerisms are priceless. Joseph happily helps his buddy "Mav" get the money he needs, and the camaraderie between these two old chums is among the cheeriest highlights of the film.

Then you've got the heavies: James Coburn as the Commodore, the host of the big poker event of the year, and the invaluable Alfred Molina as Angel. Of course, like everyone in Maverick, the Commodore has a few tricks up his sleeve. And Angel is the poor schlub who continues to get duped by Maverick at every turn. Bret Maverick is always one step ahead of you, gentlemen. He knows how to read your tells.

Maverick is as good as it gets for me when it comes to pure well-oiled entertainment. The film helped cement 1994 as one of cinema's greatest of all-time. That year saw some of our best movie stars (Tom Hanks, John Travolta, Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman) in some of their most memorable roles, and Gibson in Maverick is no exception.

When, if ever, will westerns be this fun again?

"You can't help it, can you? You really are irresistible."

Monday, September 12, 2011

The 5 Best: Richard Donner

This is the first of three posts this week on the work of Richard Donner. Click here and here for the other two posts.

You can never pigeonhole Richard Donner. Look at the genres of some of his films: A send-up on westerns, a kid's adventure story, an action blockbuster (and its many sequels), a dark family comedy, a comic book adaptation (and uncredited work on its sequel), a mystical fantasy, and a nostalgic drama. Donner knows how to stage an action scene but what many people don't realize is that he is an extremely versatile director.

Richard Donner, who turned 81 (!) this year, has directed only 18 feature films in 35 years. He did a ton of television in the 60s and 70s, and while I haven't seen any of it, those works are clearly the foundation of his feature film career. Some of his films are pretty terrible (16 Blocks, Timeline, Assassins and Lethal Weapon 4) and some, while completely forgettable, are just decent enough to pass the time (Conspiracy Theory, Lethal Weapon 3, The Toy).

But the other half of Donner's film directing credits are pretty damned good. My five favorites are not all masterpieces but they work on so many levels. I grew up with two of them and I later appreciated the level of skill and craftsmanship in the other three. And all together, they are just plain fun.

Not quite making the cut: the gorgeous fantasy Ladyhawke and the hugely underrated Radio Flyer. Flyer is a special film in its own right (I have some things to say about it here), and Ladyhawke is too beautiful for words. Hard to believe he made the latter in the same year as The Goonies. But those titles only narrowly missed the cut; I just have a little bit more love for these five films below. A teeny bit more.

So, in order of preference, these are Richard Donner's five best films.

Maverick (1994)
His richest film. This one is filled with a great abundance of energy, humor and wit. Maverick is Richard Donner's love letter to a dying genre: the western. You've got your typical cowboys and gunfights but also: a thrilling poker championship, a feisty love triangle, and a father-son bond unlike any other. The cast is charming and delightful, from Mel Gibson (a role he's born to play) to Jodie Foster (the most fun she's ever been) to James Garner (coming full circle with his decades-spanning career). Throw in some Coburn, Molina, Greene, a crackling William Goldman script, and you've got yourself a royal flush.

The Goonies (1985)
Every child of the 80's has a special place in their heart for The Goonies. Critics trashed it, but this one is special. I think you had to be a kid to enjoy it and just carry it with you all of your life. I revisited the film not long ago and it still works. The cynic in me refused to come out; I ignored the lazy plot holes and the awkward pacing and simply embraced the film for what it was. The dialogue just flows beautifully ("It's our time, our time down here!") and the actors are lovably pitch perfect, from Josh Brolin's Brand to Ke Huy Quan's Data to Corey Feldman's Mouth. I've always secretly hoped for a sequel (which has been rumored for years), but I know it will never capture the magical spirit of the original. Goonies Never Say Die!

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
The best sequel to one of the most influential action films in cinematic history. I liked the original just fine - it introduced a healthy combination of hard-R action, a buddy cop dynamic, and a reckless, suicidal no-holds-barred antihero in Martin Riggs. But this sequel takes it all even further, adding more comedy and more pathos. Lethal Weapon 2 also has a badass villain in Joss Acklund's Arjen Rudd ("Diplomatic immunity, Detective!"), fantastic action (for some reason, I still get chills when the cops get killed off one by one), and much much more heart. When Murtaugh had a bomb under his toilet seat and Riggs risked his life to get him safely into the tub, you just knew these guys were meant for each other.

Scrooged (1988)
Probably Donner's most divisive title on this list. I know a lot of folks who just didn't dig it and that makes sense. Tonally, it's all over the map. At turns, Scrooged is dark, sappy, brilliant and dumb, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The film is a messy, ridiculously entertaining take on a modern classic, and its goofiness and twisted logic is precisely why I loved it so much. Donner assembled another superb cast with Alfre Woodard, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Carol Kane, Karen Allen, Robert Mitchum, and of course, Scrooge himself, Bill Murray. Murray was already a star when this came out, but Scrooged is a reminder of why, precisely, he is so great. "Did you try staples?"

Superman (1978)
After three sequels and a 2006 remake (with yet another remake on the way), this 1978 original is still the best of all Superman movies. In Donner's second major film (after The Omen), we were introduced to Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent, a charming dolt who worked for the Daily Planet in Metropolis. He doubled as a superhero in a red cape and saved people from troubling situations. He courted Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), sparred with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and won the hearts of millions of Americans. Superman is nearly 35 years old and holds up brilliantly today. Donner had a hand in the sequel, but his work went uncredited. Superman II is good fun, but this one -- like many of Donner's films -- has more heart and soul.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Best of the Year: 2010

Better late than never, right? While the rest of the blogosphere and the circle of critics dole out their Best of the Year lists in December and January, I barely scratch the surface in viewing everything I want to see that year. In fact, many of the titles I loved in 2010 was seen in 2011.

That's OK. It's not the first time I've been called slow.

It was a strong year. 2010 had a lot more very good films than great ones, and that's a fair trade off. Great films are hard to come by but the great amount of honorable mentions listed below tells me that we're not lacking in quality films and talented artists.

And on that note, allow me to present...

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Blue Valentine
Derek Cianfrance directed this achingly beautiful drama about a young couple approaching the end of a brief marriage. We've seen endless films about the dissolution of wedded bliss (ranging from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Kramer Vs Kramer to War of the Roses), but this one feels fresh. Blue Valentine is bittersweet because not only do we witness the cruel, difficult end of their relationship but also the hopeful, wistful beginning. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are nothing short of electrifying.

Ryan Reynolds delivers a tour-de-force in Buried, a high-concept thriller about a man trapped in a coffin and ... well, that's all you really need to know. This is the kind of film that benefits from the element of surprise. Director Rodrigo Cortes makes an impressively assured debut. It's not an easy feat to turn a one-character film into an edge-of-your-seater. Nicely done.

This one came out of nowhere. Catfish is a documentary that plays like a thriller. We follow a man named Ariel Schulman who chronicles his long-distance friendship with a very young fan. He becomes close to the girl's older sister and friendly with their mother. When he decides it's time to meet them all in person, things don't exactly go as planned. Catfish as frightening as any horror film I've ever seen but the final act is the film's biggest surprise. I was not expecting to be so moved and touched. Whether you believe all of this to be real or fake, Catfish is a beautiful story about expectations and loneliness.

Get Low
A quiet little charmer, Get Low is a drama about a man owning up to his guilt. A terrible thing happened 50 years ago and Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) has lived with it most of his life. His health was beginning to fail, so it was time to come clean. He arranges a funeral (with Bill Murray and Lucas Black) for himself to close this unnerving chapter of his life. Get Low has a big heart and enough supply of whimsy to last the whole year.

I Love You Phillip Morris
Not since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has Jim Carrey taken command of the screen as he does in I Love You Philip Morris. When Carrey stars in a film with big ideas and a larger than life role (i.e. The Truman Show), magical things happen. He plays a con man who leaves his wife for another man (Ewan MacGregor) and, together, they embark on a journey so twisted and crazy that it has to be true. The writers of Bad Santa have become masters of biting comedy and irreverent wit. By far and large, I Love You Philip Morris is the funniest movie of the year.

Mother and Child
I should never underestimate the power of Rodrigo Garcia. This guy continues to impress me with his pedigree and at this point in his young career, I'd put him in the same league as John Sayles. After having his hand in Six Feet Under and In Treatment, he wrote and directed Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her. His latest, Mother and Child is exactly what you'd expect from him, a probing, insightful look at the unique relationships between adults and their offspring. Garcia elicited terrific performances from Annette Bening, Samuel L Jackson and Naomi Watts.

127 Hours
Danny Boyle's emotionally charged drama 127 Hours feels like it shouldn't have worked. I mean, the plot is paper thin: a man gets trapped on a mountaintop and reflects on his life while waiting for the inevitable. The suspense is ruined by the common knowledge that Aron Ralston survived this ordeal. But that being said, it's a testament to Boyle's gifts as a filmmaker that this film works at all. 127 Hours is as alive and life-affirming as anything I've seen all year.

The Social Network
Combining the talents of writer Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher was something that should have been done long ago. This pairing is akin to throwing a lit match into gasoline, the end result being The Social Network, a scorching, compulsively watchable high-stakes thriller about claiming ownership to a billion dollar enterprise. Everything about this movie flows beautifully - the score, the performances, the taut direction. It's the only time when the terms "Facebook" and "emotionally satisfying" will ever work in the same sentence.

The Town
I don't know about you but I'm really enjoying Ben Affleck's career resurgence, this time as director. Gone Baby Gone impressed me, but The Town showed me that Affleck has what it takes to be a big time director in this business. He stars as Doug McRay, a bank robber whose attempts to start anew is foiled by pressure from a mob boss (the late, great Pete Postlethwaite) and a live wire partner (Jeremy Renner). It's a crackling genre piece imbued with a quiet intensity.

Toy Story 3
My love affair with Pixar continues with this disarmingly sweet film about looking back at your childhood and growing up. After touching me deeply with the opening montage from Up, Pixar made me reach for the hankies yet again (and again) as the gang survives another great adventure and Andy says goodbye. No one touches the soul quite like Pixar.

You Don't Know Jack
The best docudrama of the year and, no surprise, it came from HBO. After last year's remarkable John Adams miniseries and Recount, and this year's Temple Grandin, HBO is the go-to place for emotional, fact-based dramas with extraordinary pedigree. You Don't Know Jack delves into the beliefs of Jack Kevorkian, a controversial doctor who spent many years of his career defending the right to assist sickly patients in suicide. Al Pacino delivers his best performance in 30 years. It's uncanny how he gets inside Kevorkian's skin and under ours. The film is also a remarkable achievement for long-time director Barry Levinson.

Honorable Mention
The American; Another Year; Barney's Version; Black Swan; City Island; Conviction; Cyrus; Dogtooth; Fish Tank; Get Him To The Greek; The Ghost Writer; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One; Hereafter; Inception; The Kids Are All Right; The King's Speech; Paranormal Activity 2; Please Give; Rabbit Hole; Salt; Temple Grandin; True Grit; Unstoppable; Waiting for Superman

Friday, September 2, 2011

Musings Through Filtered Ears #6

A series of random thoughts by a DVR-overloaded addict....

September, it's so great to see you!
Fall is right around the corner and I cannot wait. It's my favorite time of the year. The roaring fireplace. Falling leaves. Football. The crisp, clear New England air.

And the return of high quality movies and appointment television.

First, the silver screen. George Clooney is everywhere and I couldn't be happier. He's the greatest actor-slash-movie star of his generation. He consistently produces strong films and all are not necessarily crowd-pleasers. I really admired The American, unlike most people I know. Clooney stretches and takes risks. I'm greatly anticipating both Ides of March (which he also directs) and The Descendants (welcome back, Alexander Payne!). The latter is precisely the kind of film I can see Payne and Clooney excelling in.

And apparently, Crazy Stupid Love wasn't enough for Ryan Gosling this year. He's having a terrific year, also starring in Ides of March and in Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (which, from what I hear, is pretty freakin' awesome). March, Descendants and Drive top my must-see flicks of the season.

Some other big releases I'm looking forward to: We Bought a Zoo (from Cameron Crowe, another long-absent director, greatly missed since the hugely underrated Elizabethtown), Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol (with Brad Bird at the helm and a feel/tone reminiscent of the 1996 original has me feeling good about this one), and Carnage (the cast and director alone has me in line, and I don't even care what it's about). On a smaller scale, I'll also be seeing Martha Marcy May Marlene (sure to be the indie sensation of the year), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (it's probably terrible, but how can I resist these two schlubs?) and Paranormal Activity 3 (they are pushing their luck, but you know, the first two didn't let me down and this one is helmed by the directors of the terrific Catfish).

There are others I'm intrigued by (50/50, Contagion, Iron Lady) but I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. Are they worth the trek out to theaters or will they be merely appointment rentals? Only time will tell.

On the TV side of things, I'm not sure which new shows I'm eager to try. I've missed Buffy, big time, but do I miss Sarah Michelle Gellar enough to try the CW's Ringer? Ehh, not sure. Pan Am and Charlie's Angels? No thanks. Person of Interest has Michael Emerson back on TV (and those who know me know why I love this man), but frankly, I'm tired of procedurals. And there isn't a new sitcom in the bunch that looks remotely appealing.

As for FX's American Horror Story, well, it looks like it could be a winner, thanks to Connie Britton's presence, FX's lucky streak, and the warped mind of Ryan Murphy. But I'm thinking I may have to wait it out and follow the word of mouth before committing. Another potential keeper: ABC's Once Upon a Time. The creators are Eddie Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, co-writers of Lost. I like the premise - fairy tale characters living in the present day - so I'm hoping it's ambitious and has big ideas.

But I don't want to get attached to anything new right now, really. I still have season one of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Damages and Justified all hanging out in my Netflix queue. This is what I tend to do lately - I don't watch new shows unless I know it's good and then catch up with them later.

But of the returning ones, I think the one I'm most excited for (surprisingly enough) is Glee. After such a lackluster, directionless second season, I had a lot of reasons to believe the show was going down hill. But with a new writing staff, I think we may be in good hands. Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan were stretching themselves thin writing every word for this huge cast. For the new season, they promised character driven plots (rather than theme or artist-driven), plus some closure (so long, graduates!) and new beginnings (hello Glee Project winners!). I'm putting a lot of faith in these guys.

Also, I never watched more than 4 or 5 episodes of Two and a Half Men, but I'll be tuning in to the premiere. I think Kutcher is funny and I, like millions of others, are curious about how they are going to kill off Charlie Sheen's character.

The fall season also signifies the return of great shows like Dexter, Modern Family and The Walking Dead.

Ah, fall. Good to have you back.

Screaming bloody murder
I'm a casual fan of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and, even in its own hokey way, Return of the Jedi. I'm not an obsessive fanboy, but these are treasured classics and should be treated as such.

So it irks me a bit to watch George Lucas fuck these movies up any way he possibly can. The atrocious prequels are one thing (he wanted to continue his story, and I get that), but really, George, must you continue to mess with the original films? It seems every re-release has something new he wants to add. A digitized Yoda. Han Solo shooting first. And now, in the new Jedi blu-ray edition, Lucas makes Darth Vader scream "Noooooo!" as he saves Luke from his death. What. The. Hell? What's next, the Ewoks will start blinking their eyes? Oh wait.

What's the point? Does this make the film better? Does he think his fans are asking, George, in your 47th re-release of the Star Wars franchise, you gotta do something about Vader in the end of Jedi? Make him vulnerable, make him weak. Show us that Vader can emote like the best of them!

Lucas has a history of screwing things up. Supposedly, he was the hold up for the 4th Indiana Jones movie and would not agree to make it unless it had aliens in it. Spielberg and Ford did what they could with Crystal Skull, but the film was a letdown. The aliens aspect nearly killed the damn thing.

So, Mr. Lucas, it might be best for you to retire. Especially before you start tinkering with Howard the Duck.

Quietly, our little movie site had its 10,000th hit last week. Thanks to those who continue to show up and read our stuff!


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