Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Best of the Year: 1992

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Death Becomes Her
Filmmaking genius Robert Zemeckis crafted this dark comedy about two feuding best friends (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) and the loser who came between them (Bruce Willis, brilliantly cast). The story takes a few awkward turns, but still, the film looks great, the effects are generous and ingenious, and the high wattage cast is terrific fun to watch. Zemeckis pulls it off once and again.

A Few Good Men
A lean, scenery-chewer of a courtroom drama. Nicholson and Cruise, an imaginative pairing if there ever was one, create vivid characters who square off spectacularly in the memorable final scenes. The supporting cast of pros, including Bacon, Pollak, Sutherland, Moore, and the late, great Walsh, help alleviate the tension and guide us through Aaron Sorkin's tightly polished screenplay. This is a fantastic movie, are we clear?

Glengarry Glen Ross
Who knew dialogue could be so powerful? David Mamet wrote this blistering, sobering account about the dog-eat-dog world of insurance salesmen. It may not sound thrilling as an idea, but this film has more chills, suspense and excitement than any Hollywood blockbuster. The script may be remarkable, but it is the actors that make this one compulsively watchable. Lemmon, Spacey, Harris, Pacino, Arkin, Baldwin and Pryce. That's a lineup every director dreams of and James Foley lets them work their magic in every scene. Anyone who appreciates the power of the written word and the nuance of an actor's delivery must seek out this film. A masterpiece of the highest order.

Jack Nicholson doesn't usually do biopics. Every character he portrays is his own (he even made the Joker look like an original creation). Well, now, he took a popular political figure and made Jimmy Hoffa his own; his performance is exciting and moving. Danny DeVito, an amazing director with great visual style, shows his usual panache behind the camera and in front of it -- and he's not afraid to tell us who Hoffa was and how he disappeared. It's a thrilling picture, masterfully executed.

Jennifer 8
Andy Garcia, the king of smoldering sexy actors, stars here as a cop who falls in love with a potential next victim of a twisted serial killer. Uma Thurman is the frightened blind woman, and John Malkovich, crackling here, is the investigator who fingers Garcia as a likely suspect. Jennifer 8 is a moody, well-scripted, tight thriller, enormously entertaining.

Leap of Faith
Steve Martin is a force to be reckoned with in this sweet, old-fashioned comedy-drama about a small town racked with problems. Martin is the evangelist who sweeps in, praises the Lord Almighty, pretends God is listening, and tells everyone that all is going to be OK. There's no question that Martin is conning everyone, but also, there's no doubt he's making everyone feel alive again. Leap of Faith is by no means a great film and it doesn't have a very original storyline, but it's got spunk, is highly engaging and features a rousing performance by one of the funniest men alive.

A Midnight Clear
A genuine indie discovery. This is a quietly powerful war drama in which a few soldiers, German and American, share a bond on Christmas during WWII, before both sides are forced to fight one another to the death. Keith Gordon directed an awesome young cast, which includes Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, John C. McGinley, Ethan Hawke, and Frank Whaley. It's truly a unique situation, and this war film stands out among others because it effectively captures the fear and confusion of battle. Beautifully done!

Noises Off!
This could very well be one of the funniest films of all time. There are more laughs in this film than in the entire Zucker/Abrams/Zucker amalgam, and this one's got a surefire cast and a great cynical undertone. Michael Caine leads the pack as an exhausted director who can't seem to get his wacky cast together in time for their nonsensical play's opening performance. The late John Ritter, in one of his best roles, appears alongside Christopher Reeve, Julie Hagerty, Mark Linn-Baker, and Carol Burnett, forming a witty, delightful, rambunctious ensemble.

Of Mice and Men
My first discovery of the brilliant acting skills of John Malkovich. I saw this film as we were reading the famous novel by John Steinbeck for class in high school, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Malkovich is Lenny, and Sinise is his cousin. The relationship is not unlike that of Raymond Babbitt and his brother from Rain Man; their bond is strong and true, despite one of their mental handicaps. It's a quiet, lovely masterpiece.

Radio Flyer
Richard Donner, one of the better directors of the 80's and early 90's, created a shamefully underrated fantasy about two brothers who find a magical way to escape their abusive father. Some couldn't see it as a children's film, some couldn't see it as an adult drama, but for those who are looking for a little bit of both will find that this is a very strong, sensitively acted piece of work. Elijah Wood (the best child actor of his time), Joseph Mazzello, Lorraine Bracco, and Tom Hanks make a beautiful ensemble, and it's a crying shame the movie got blasted the way it did. It deserves so much more.

Red Rock West
Film noir is back, thanks to John Dahl and his superb craftsmanship. Nicolas Cage, in fine form, is a drifter who gets caught in a nasty mess as he swings by a small town in the middle of the desert. After a case of mistaken identity, things go severely wrong and the twists pile up. The cast is awesome, from Lara Flynn Boyle (before she got flaky) to Dennis Hopper to the late, great J.T. Walsh. Cool shit.

The only thing wrong with this film is the pacing - it feels overlong. But what would I cut from this supremely clever film? I wouldn't want to take any screen time away from the amazing cast, especially from Sidney Poitier (adding much class), River Phoenix (a touch of edginess), Dan Aykroyd (heavy doses of humor), Mary McDonnell (some sexiness), David Strathairn (sophisticated wit), Ben Kingsley (just the right amount of menace) and Robert Redford (the truly dashing anchor). The script is hysterical as it is wild. I'd say leave it as it is and savor every nifty minute of it.

Honorable Mentions
Basic Instinct; Far and Away; Hero; A League of Their Own; El Mariachi; Memoirs of an Invisible Man; My Cousin Vinny; Prelude to a Kiss; Raising Cain; Strictly Ballroom

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gone But Not Forgotten: Quantum Leap (1989-1994)

"Gone But Not Forgotten" is a series in which I reminisce about great television shows that are... yes... gone but not forgotten. Previous entries include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sports Night.

"Theorizing that one can time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator... and vanished!"

Every week for five seasons from 1989-1993, we heard that voiceover precede each episode of Quantum Leap, an ambitious and engaging sci-fi drama about a scientist who "leaps" from life to life, temporarily taking the places of other people. The concept is brilliant, giving the writers ample opportunities to, naming a few, provide social commentary for different time periods and locales, explore the fish-out-of-water concept in numerous ways, and give Scott Bakula an acting exercise any performer would dream of.

The premise is simple. Dr. Sam Beckett (Bakula, nominated for four Emmys for this role and winner of one Golden Globe) has created a time machine in the present day. After jumping into the accelerator before it was ready, he finds himself "trapped in the past, facing mirror images that are not his own." In order to leap out of their lives, he must alter their history to better their future. And in each leap, Sam hopes that his next one will be the leap home.

Dean Stockwell plays Al, a fellow scientist from the present day who "follows" Sam as he jumps from one life to the next. Al appears in the form of a hologram and is able to provide details to Sam that allows him to achieve his goal. To speak in Lost terms, Al is Sam's constant. Without Al, Sam would be completely disillusioned to his new surroundings.

Quantum Leap is a serialized drama, which means that every week Sam leaps into a different character and has a new goal to achieve. Some memorable leaps include: a criminal who holds a mother and daughter hostage; a chimp (yes, a chimp) who heads to outer space; a female rape victim; a co-pilot of an air taxi flying through the Bermuda Triangle; a washed-out baseball player; a Ku-Klux-Klan member; a young man with Down Syndrome (twice!); a traveling magician and so much more. But if I'm going to narrow it down to a select few over the course of five memorable seasons, these are the episodes/arcs that truly define how amazing this series used to be.

--"The Leap Home" (2 parts) - Season 3 Premiere
"I'd give anything to have what you have, Sam." That's what Al says when Sam realizes that he can save the lives of complete strangers but not his own family. In "The Leap Home Part One," he leaps into his own self at age 16 in 1969 and is finally at home again. He wants to prevent his father from dying of a heart attack and keep his brother from going to Vietnam and getting killed. But Al tells him the only reason he is there is to win a basketball game and Sam has tremendous difficulty accepting that.

What a moving, heartfelt hour of Quantum Leap. Watching Sam long for his family is heartbreaking. It was an innocent time and who wouldn't kill for a chance to rewind life back to that era and change things for the better?

In "The Leap Home Part Two," Sam leaps into a buddy from his brother's unit in Vietnam and ends up saving his life anyway. In a thrilling twist, he discovers Al as a POW in 1970. Sam wanted to free him but hologram Al refused. He got repatriated in 5 years anyway and wouldn't change a thing.

--"Shock Theater" - Season 3 Finale
The other bookend to this remarkable season was this finale in which Sam leapt into a mental patient who was administered shock treatment. This fries Sam's brain which not only weakens his connection with Al, but also causes Sam to act like some of the previous people he leapt into. This was an acting powerhouse from Scott Bakula who had to portray so many different personas for the entire hour. Really nerve-wracking drama. The tail-end of the hour has Sam leaping out of the hospital and switching places with Al in 1945. What a cliffhanger! Imagine enduring an entire summer waiting to see what happened next. It was the summer I turned 14, and I remember vividly being obsessed with this damn show. September couldn't have come any sooner.

--"The Leap Back" - Season 4 Premiere
When the show came back that September, it was as fun and rewarding as I had anticipated. The writers infused a lot of humor in this episode where Sam - finally! - got to enjoy life back at the home base in the present day. He reunited with his wife and was perfectly at ease commanding the "computer" that he designed in the first place. Sam certainly enjoyed the experience of being the hologram to Al's confused, dismayed leaper status. "Revenge is mine, saith the hologram!," Sam shouts with glee. Nice to see Quantum Leap take a break from the heavy stuff.

--"A Leap for Lisa" - Season 4 Finale
It seems the show worked best for me when the stakes were high, which happened at the beginning and end of the last three seasons. In the case of this surprising finale, Sam leaps into Al in 1957 when he was a young ensign. He tweaks history for the worse and Al is sentenced to death. The result is Sam having a new hologram to help him achieve his goal. It's safe to assume it all worked out in the end. The show is best when it toys with the elements of time and alters history as we know it. This theme continues masterfully with the next season's premiere.

--"Lee Harvey Oswald" - Season 5 Premiere
Probably Sam's most high-profile leap of the series and definitely one of the most compelling episodes the show ever produced. In another acting showcase for Bakula, Sam leaps in and out of Lee Harvey Oswald over the course of 5 years prior to the Kennedy assassination. This episode aired a year after Oliver Stone's JFK as a counter-argument for some widely-circulated conspiracy theories. Quantum Leap's creator and writer, Donald P. Bellasario, actually served in the Marine Corp with Oswald and is convinced that he acted alone in Kennedy's assassination. This episode, in which Sam retained some of Oswald's personality and was unable to control his actions (a first for the show), was a way for Bellasario to show that Oswald killed Kennedy alone because of his long-held political beliefs. Sam couldn't prevent Oswald from killing JFK, but the episode ended with the revelation that he had indeed saved the life of Jackie O. It was a tremendously satisfying conclusion to an exceptionally well-written, much-acclaimed episode.

--"Mirror Image" - Series Finale
Oh, how this finale made me so mad. "Mirror Image," a fun, twisty hour of time-travel goodness, was originally intended as a season finale. NBC opted at the last minute to cancel the show, leaving Bellasario with little choice but to wrap up the series with a cue card essentially stating that Sam "never returned home." Seriously? I felt we were owed so much more than that. There had been talk for many, many years about a follow-up TV movie, but it never happened. One of the worst things a series finale could do was not provide any sense of satisfying closure, and that's what happened with Quantum Leap. Having said that, I look back on this hour and realize how enjoyable it is. In a way, "Mirror Image" is a fitting end to the series because it featured a collection of popular personalities that we were familiar with from over the years. In the end, though, Sam did what he felt was right. He had the opportunity to go home, but he had to break some rules and fix Al's marriage. I suppose it was the least Sam could do after all Al had done for him. But when that fateful, frustrating cue card came up at the very end, I slapped my forehead.

Oh boy, indeed.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Quick Takes: February Highlights

Wow, February was a very mixed bag for me when it came to movies. Two great films, one very good one, a couple of decent titles and a handful of crappy ones. My Netflix queue is loaded with potentially great titles from 2011 I haven't seen yet (Hugo, Descendants, Melancholia, etc) so I have a long way to go before I'm stuck with the earlier 2012 releases. I'm hoping March will be a more consistently great month. 

As for TV, I had to put Mad Men on hold. Halfway through season one, I couldn't get myself into it. I just don't care. What am I missing? So, while I shelve that title for the time being, I'm jumping into Breaking Bad, and after 3 episodes so far, I'm absolutely loving it. Wow! What a creative, funny, off-the-wall drama! I can't wait to write about it for next month's highlights.

Now, the good, bad and ugly of February, in order of viewing. I started the month off with last week's Best Picture winner, The Artist.

Dir. Michel Hazanavicius
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) was a handsome and popular movie star during the silent film era. He loved being the center of attention and America clearly adored him. That is, of course, until talking pictures were invented. Valentin's career and personal life began spiraling downward at breakneck speeds and there were only two things in his life that kept him afloat: his loyal, affectionate dog and the actress he once discovered and loved (Berenice Bejo, a wonderful face). The Artist is pure fluff. Sure, it's sweet and charming, but there is no weight to it. It was nearly impossible to take it seriously or feel any deep emotion for these characters. I hate to use the word "overrated" here but for me The Artist was only seen as a pleasant diversion, a peaceful distraction from the loud pomp and circumstance of Hollywood today. Recommended viewing, but with reservations.

Dir. Justin Lin
Finally! A sequel worthy of the fun and fresh 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious. Fast Five picks up where we left off from the previous installment and smartly eschews the tired racing formula by making this one an out-and-out heist thriller. It's ridiculous and way over the top, but bringing Diesel and Walker back together again, in addition to new supporting performers (Dwayne Johnson, Joaquin De Almeida) and the good former ones (Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson) make these proceedings lively and entertaining. The previous sequels always left a sour taste in my mouth; Fast Five has me pumped for number 6.

Dir. Jesse Peretz
What a bummer. You have no idea how much I wanted to like Our Idiot Brother. This cast is responsible for making me laugh and smile for many, many years. I can't blame them, really. The script was stale, even a little bit phony. Love, love, love Paul Rudd, but who is this guy he's playing? He's clueless and bighearted, I get it, but I just couldn't connect with him. Faring much worse, though, were his insufferable, selfish, bratty sisters, played by otherwise wonderful and brilliant actresses (Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, Zooey Deschanel). I got a few chuckles out of the film, but most of time I was wishing to watch the very same cast in a completely different movie.

Dir. Ariel Shulman and Henry Joost
Anticipation is everything. That's what makes these Paranormal Activity movies work for me. What lurks at the top of the stairs? What's hiding behind the closet door? If you let it, the anticipation of finding out the answers puts you in a state of high anxiety. These films are hugely successful - budgeting at $5 million, they rake in $100+ million - because they tap into that fear of the unexpected. I'm not one for torture porn (Saw, Hostel) or bloody horror films, so this type of "scary movie" where the villain cannot be seen is my cup of tea. Continuing the unraveling mystery of Katie and Kristi, Paranormal Activity 3 jumps back to 1988, when the "entity" began terrorizing the sisters. Joost and Shulman, directors of last year's favorite of mine, Catfish, helm this with a freshness that is typically unheard of for a sequel of a horror franchise. Impressively, this series has a lot of juice.

Dir. Richard Press
"He who seeks beauty shall find it." Anyone who has ever read Sunday's New York Times has seen Bill Cunningham's work. Well-known in fashion circles, Cunningham is a man who is never without a camera. He doesn't care who you are; he just wants to capture your clothes. He loves when everyday people walk the street wearing something that makes them happy, whether it be a funny hat, or colorful scarf, or shoes to die for. He believes that clothes define a person and he captures that persons essence better than anyone out there. Bill Cunningham is 80 years old, bikes around Manhattan every day, and takes pictures. He lives a simple life. He takes joy in the little things. His work is his life. How can you not smile when you think of him?

Dir. Steven Quale
I knew my luck would run out. After enjoying two good sequels this month (see above), this one had to shit all over everything. As you may know, I loved the first Final Destination; it's one of my favorites of 2000 and, in my opinion, it's among the best in the horror genre, period. Final Destination 2 was a huge drop but I still enjoyed it. That opening car crash scene shook me to my core. Number 3 was forgettable on all levels and I skipped number 4. So why I did bother with this one? Well, the buzz was pretty strong and I was nostalgic for some old-fashioned fate-driven gory death scenes. I should have left well enough alone. FD5 was a bore; only the LASIK scene caused me to peek through my fingers. And I'll admit, I got a nice buzz from that final twist, which I didn't see coming at all. Other than that, time to put this series to bed once and for all.

Dir. Eli Craig
Tucker and Dale Vs Evil is a surprisingly funny horror comedy that held up its inspired premise longer than I thought it would. I was expecting to grow tired of seeing a group of asshole college kids accidentally killing themselves, but it was actually a perverse pleasure to watch. It's certainly no genre-buster or game-changer, but a diverting, sometimes charming off-the-wall little horror flick. The highlight is the well-matched Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as two clueless knuckleheads who are in way over their heads.

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
Driver (Ryan Gosling) immerses himself in the world of cars every waking minute of his life. When he's not a getaway driver for robbers, he's a car stuntman in action films and works in a buddy's garage fixing up autos. It's a fairly simple life until he gets emotionally involved with a cute neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her troubled husband. Drive is a fantastic piece of pulpy cinema, peppered with a very strong cast, doses of extreme bursts of violence and situations that leave you filled with dread. I'm always amazed how much charisma and talent Gosling has as an actor; the man continues to surprise and delight. Albert Brooks received high acclaim for his role as a ruthless mobster and it's a wonderful change of pace for the dryly funny comic. However, I thought Bryan Cranston as the garage owner was just as strong, if not better. Ron Perlman has some great fun in a high-wire performance as an overly sensitive gangster. Refn is a fresh filmmaker, infusing a unique style in Drive that reminds me of some edgy films of the 70's.

Dir. Chris Weitz
Demian Bichir scored a surprising Best Actor nomination for his remarkable, deeply felt performance as Carlos, a hard-working gardener who dreams of a better life for him and his wayward son. The story is nothing new and breaks no new ground. But the performances are real and grounded, making A Better Life a compelling and authentic human interest drama. The plight of illegal immigrants is a polarizing issue in America and this film gets deep inside one fractured family's struggle to survive, making it impossible for the viewer not to care.

Dir. Jonathan Levine
I'm a big, big fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have been since 3rd Rock From the Sun. I mean, how can you not like him? This kid has more talent than any other star his age. Watch Mysterious Skin, then his opening monologue of SNL from last year, and then enjoy 50/50, in which Gordon-Levitt tackles a new kind of leading role. He delivers a emotionally resonant performance as young, active twenty-something who discovers he has cancer. Will Reiser's phenomenal script (which is based on his life) mires some real, hearty laughs out of devastating truths. 50/50 is not a pick-me-up but it's certainly not a downer, either. It's one of the more life-affirming films I've seen in recent years.

Dir. Michael Sucsy
I was away on vacation on a tropical island and needed a night out on the town. Needless to say, the movie selection was sparse down there. At a ridiculously awesome price of $3.50 per ticket (cheap dates rule!), my wife and I took a chance with The Vow, a romantic sudser about a woman (Rachel McAdams) who loses her memory in a car accident while her husband (Channing Tatum) tries to meticulously pick up the pieces of their now-shattered marriage. How did Nicholas Sparks not write this film already? There's nothing in The Vow that hasn't been done to death already; you can beat for beat predict the events that occur from the first act to the last. McAdams tries her best and makes the film somewhat watchable, but Channing Tatum may be better suited in an action genre. He's not very big on that whole emoting thing. The subplots involving Sam Neill, Jessica Lange and Scott Speedman are laughable, mechanical and completely ripped off from the Nicholas Sparks playbook of cliches, even though I still can't get over the fact that Sparks never wrote this. Hate to say it, but The Vow is barely even worth the cheap seats.


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