Sunday, December 30, 2012

I Walk Alone (1948)

I Walk Alone is a very good and seemingly underrated movie; perhaps because it is in the genre of film noir. It certainly has the pedigree for a good film though, as it boasts Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in their first film appearance together -- and both men deliver excellent performances.

Lancaster plays Frankie Madison, a bootlegger who is leaving prison after 14 years when the movie opens. Frankie goes to find his partner Noll "Dink" Turner (Douglas), who now runs a successful nightclub. Noll had avoided capture and had never served jail time.  In the intervening years, the speakeasy that Frankie and Noll had owned was closed down with the repeal of Prohibition, and Noll had singlehandedly built his current nightclub into a rousing success. Frankie believes that he is entitled to half of Noll's nightclub.  When Noll disagrees, Frankie vows to take what he believes is rightfully his.

Both Lancaster and Douglas are outstanding. Lancaster allows Frankie's anger to smolder until his rage erupts.  Douglas's Noll is both wily and smarmy. Wendell Corey and Lizabeth Scott deliver solid supporting performances. Corey is Noll's accountant who was also the accountant when Frankie and Noll were partners.  Scott is terrific as the smoky-throated chanteuse in Noll's nightclub who thinks she is in love with Noll until Frankie rolls in.

The script of I Walk Alone is sharp and Byron Haskin's direction is tight -- there isn't a wasted minute in the whole movie. Maybe the end of the film gets a little too heavy on the plot, but the movie works as an entertaining,  cohesive whole.  It's a solid example of film noir, and of the work of Lancaster, Douglas, and Scott. It also seems like this is a very early example of the antihero, which became popular in films of the 1970s. Grade: B+.

Fun fact: This movie was used in Carl Reiner's film noir parody Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which starred Steve Martin.

I watched this black-and-white movie on Netflix streaming on December 30,2012.

The Buster Keaton Story (1957)

In a lot of ways, The Buster Keaton Story is the worst biopic that I've ever seen in my life. That's because virtually none of it is true! Yes, Buster Keaton performed in vaudeville with his family as a child.  Yes, he had phenomenal success in the silent films. And yes, sadly he was an alcoholic. None of the characters in this film except for Buster's parents are real. I've seen some whitewashed movie biographies in my day, but this is ridiculous.

The second egregious problem with the movie is that it doesn't focus much on Keaton's phenomenal movie career.  Let's face it -- the only reason any of us are interested in Keaton at all is because of the groundbreaking and truly innovative work that he did on his silent films.  The 1920s fly by in this film in about 10 minutes. Part of that time is spent re-creating scenes from two of Keaton's films (and one of those scenes, from Keaton's College, is rather dull and unfunny!). The bulk of the movie is spent on Keaton's alcoholism and resulting decline, and his relationship to casting director Gloria Brent whom he marries. (In life, none of Keaton's three wives were either casting directors or named Gloria.)

Fundamentally, I believe a movie maker has a right to make a movie any way he or she pleases.  In this case, since it is mostly fiction anyway, Buster Keaton's name could have been excised completely and the movie would not have been hurt. In fact, it would have helped in my eyes because I wouldn't have been irritated that it essentially had nothing to do with Buster Keaton.

So who's to blame for this mess? Surely some executive at Paramount Pictures received his walking papers for approving this drivel. But I lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of director and co-writer Sidney Sheldon.  This is the same Sidney Sheldon who would create The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart for TV -- and write most of the scripts for these shows. And it's the same Sidney Sheldon who would become the seventh best-selling writer of all time by churning out titillating beach reads like The Other Side of Midnight, A Stranger in the Mirror, and Rage of Angels. Sheldon ain't known for high quality art. (To be fair, Sheldon did win an Oscar for writing The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer  -- a film I haven't seen -- in 1947. And I've enjoyed my share of I Dream of Jeannie episodes.)

Poor Donald O'Connor tries valiantly to re-create Keaton. I don't think his performance is terrible; it just doesn't remind me of Buster Keaton. At all.  Beautiful Ann Blyth's performance as Keaton's wife is decidedly one-note until her final scene when she's finally allowed to loosen up.  Peter Lorre -- also delivering a one-note performance -- has a truly wretchedly-written role as a movie director who seems to hate Buster Keaton on sight for no explicable reason.  Larry Keating is well-cast as a movie studio head.  I saw on the movie credits that Richard Anderson (the boss on TV's The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) and Jackie Coogan (Uncle Fester on TV's The Addams Family) were in the film, but I didn't recognize them while watching the movie and wasn't interested enough to go back and look for them.

I wish that I had watched a Buster Keaton film instead of The Buster Keaton Story. But I didn't, and it's hardly among the films that I absolutely loathe, so it gets a C-.

I watched this black-and-white film on Netflix streaming on December 30, 2012.

Career (1959)

I don't know why Career hasn't been on my radar before now as it is a very good movie -- perhaps the best I've ever seen regarding the struggles for an actor to find success.

Anthony Franciosa plays Sam Lawson, a young man who leaves his fiancee (Joan Blackman) and hometown of Lansing, MI to build a career as an actor in New York. He is barely scraping by when he joins a struggling theater troupe led by Maury Novak (Dean Martin), and he isn't paid for his acting work.  The struggling theater group folds, and Maury accepts a job in Hollywood and eventually becomes a successful director.

Meanwhile, Sam's dogged determination to be a working actor costs him his marriage.  When the successful Maury refuses to help Sam, Sam retaliates by marrying Maury's alcoholic girlfriend Sharon, the daughter of a successful Broadway producer (vividly portrayed by Shirley MacLaine). The marriage brings Sam low-paying but steady work. His marriage ends as he is called up for Army service in the Korean War.  When he gets out of the service and tries to resume his acting career, Sam finds that he has been tainted because of his previous relationship with Maury -- now blacklisted in Hollywood because of Communist ties.

I'm amazed that so much plot and character are compressed into this film.  The lean script is deftly written. The black-and-white cinematography, art direction, and Edith Head's costuming all deservedly received Oscar nominations. Dean Martin was quite good in his dramatic role as Maury; it's a role that isn't particularly redeeming.  Shirley MacLaine is effective as spoiled rich girl Sharon.  Anthony Franciosa excels in the lead as the actor who won't give up on his dream.  Carolyn Jones is powerful as Sam's agent Shirley -- I think she was an underused actress in her career. Robert Middleton was memorable as a Broadway producer.  Donna Douglas, famous as Elly Mae on TV's The Beverly Hillbillies, is also in the film.  I didn't recognize her while watching the movie, however. (Maybe she's a better actress than I thought!)

Career is a much better movie than I expected.  It didn't feel dated to me --it seemed to be a solid story that happened to be set in the 1950s. Supposedly this is the first Hollywood movie to mention the blacklist, and supposedly blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo contributed to the screenplay. However the movie credits only mention James Lee as the writer and as the author of the source play. Joseph Anthony did a fine job directing this interesting movie -- it flows well and all the components are better-than-average. Career gets an A- from me.

I watched Career on Netflix streaming on December 30, 2012.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained (2012)

My anticipation level was very high for Django Unchained.  Director Quentin Tarantino is always interesting, and usually entertaining with a point to make under the over-the-top violence and coarse language in his films. He's a great fan of the B movies in 1970s cinema, and his films often play homage to them. He's clearly a movie lover, and over the years has jump-started some sagging film careers. John Travolta, Pam Grier, David Carradine, and Robert Forster come to mind. His films Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Inglourious Basterds are favorites of mine. Django Unchained sounded like it would be a movie among Tarantino's best.

The basic plot line is this: In 1858, a German bounty hunter (masterfully played by Christoph Waltz) needs slave Django (a quiet and virile Jamie Foxx in perhaps his best screen role to-date) to help him find three criminals.A deal is made that if Django helps the bounty hunter, then the bounty hunter will free Django. The two men discover that they work well together, so they strike another deal. If the now-free Django will assist the bounty hunter through the winter, then the bounty hunter will help Django recover his wife Hildy (played by Kerry Washington), a slave who has been sold to a cruel Mississippi plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio, zestfully portraying a bad guy.)

Tarantino's script is witty and fresh, and his direction of the film shows him at the height of his powers.  Yes, there is a lot of his trademark over-the-top violence, but the point of it all is to skewer racism. Django Unchained is a movie that works despite modern dialogue, a score that hardly matches the time and setting of the film (Jim Croce? Rap?), and a cast of actors who all (except Foxx's Django) chew the scenery with relish. It is vibrant, it is timely, and it is never dull despite its two hour and forty-five minute running time.

Let's talk about those actors for a minute. Foxx brings dignity and determination to the role of Django. Yet this movie becomes something  else entirely without Christoph Waltz. Waltz is mesmerizing and he gets the choice lines in the movie. This role couldn't be further away from his Oscar-winning role as a Nazi in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but for my money, Waltz is even better here.Then there's DiCaprio's playful performance as the movie's main villain. Samuel L. Jackson adds to his roster of classic roles as DiCaprio's sassy house slave. Don Johnson is lively as a plantation owner/ Ku Klux Klan member. Michael Parks, a staple of 1970s TV and a regular in Tarantino films, makes an appearance with Tarantino in the film. Jonah Hill shows up. Walton Goggins, a favorite of mine from TV's The Shield, incredibly got a flashy part in both in this film and in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. Dennis Christopher, as DiCaprio's lawyer,  has his best screen role since his lead in 1979's Breaking Away. Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley, Russ Tamblyn, and Bruce Dern -- all actors well-past their heydays -- are all in the film.  Tarantino is great about remembering older actors.

 There are a lot of allusions to 1970s blaxploitation cinema. That's to be expected since Tarantino seems to be a fan. The result of all these disparate elements is one strikingly original, fascinating, and entertaining movie that seeks to show how silly racism is in all its forms.  That's a movie to cheer about, and it is one of the great movies of 2012, which has turned out to be a great movie year. Grade: A.

I saw this film at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinema on December 29, 2012 with my friend Mark.

A Christmas Memory (1997)

After the family Christmas Eve activities were over, I wanted to watch a Christmas movie before bed.  I selected A Christmas Memory, which was available for streaming. I had high expectations going into this film because as a child I had seen and loved a TV version of this story that starred Geraldine Page.  This remake was expanded into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Patty Duke. Both versions of A Christmas Memory are based on a story by Truman Capote, which I really need to read.

In A Christmas Memory, young Buddy (adequately portrayed by Eric Lloyd) has been living with some elderly cousins in the Depression-era South for awhile. He has formed a strong attachment with cousin Sook (expertly played by Duke) and the two are nearly inseparable. They bring light and joy into each other's lives, and have great fun together whether it's making fruitcakes for people they barely know or finding a Christmas tree and decorating it with homemade decorations. Sook is a child-like old woman, totally dependent on her sisters (played by Piper Laurie and Anita Gillette) for her support, yet she has great love for Buddy and tries to teach him about life. However, Sook and Buddy get drunk on the whiskey left over from making the fruitcakes, and Laurie's character decrees that for Buddy's good he needs to be sent to military school after Christmas.

Glenn Jordan directed this movie, and he directed some really good TV movies over the years. In fact, he has won 3 Emmys and been nominated for a few more. This effort was not one of his best.

A Christmas Memory is really a paint-by-the-numbers TV movie full of schmaltz. The ending cuts down the sentiment factor somewhat, as things end differently than I anticipated.  Duke is an excellent actress and I wish she had been given more and better roles over the years. I really took her Sook character to heart, but then I guess that's what Christmas movies are meant to do. In the Christmas spirit, I'll give A Christmas Memory a B, though I think most episodes of The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie are better than this movie. In my memory, the old version of this story starring Geraldine Page was a lot better, but I don't see it available online in any of the usual places.

Watched alone via Netflix streaming on December 24-25, 2012.

Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her (1999)

Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her was originally a television movie made by Showtime. I stumbled on this by accident while perusing Netflix's streaming service.  While it's not exactly the kind of movie I gravitate towards, it did boast some acclaimed actors. Since it was leaving the Netflix streaming service on December 31, 2012. I decided to watch the first few minutes of it, which were interesting enough to watch the whole thing.

The movie has several loosely-interrelated stories that focus on the unhappy love lives of women.  In the first, Glenn Close portrays a successful doctor who happens to be caring for her elderly mother on a day off. She arranges to have a fortune teller (played by Calista Flockhart, who is less annoying than usual) stop by the house. She is taken aback when the fortune teller predicts a relationship with a younger man whom she hasn't yet met. Close is one of America's best actresses and she does amazing things here without saying a word, but her story is ultimately not terribly compelling.More successful is the one where Holly Hunter portrays a successful single bank manager who finds herself pregnant with her married lover's (played by Gregory Hines) child.  Childless and nearing 40, Hunter's character elects to abort her child and subsequently feels despairing loneliness and regret. Hunter was Emmy-nominated for this role.

Kathy Baker portrays a single mom having to deal with her teenage son's sexual awakening and then she finds herself attracted to the dwarf who moves into the house across the street. This could have been a train wreck (albeit a watchable one!), but somehow the situation is handled with dexterity and charm. The fourth storyline is the least successful -- Flockhart's character is at home caring for her cancer-ridden lover played by Valeria Golina. I really had zero interest in this talky segment. The last segment is a single police detective, played by Amy Brenneman, who is investigating the murder of a high school friend and living with her blind sister played by Cameron Diaz. Diaz gives a good performance, and Brenneman is even better as we see her envy at her sister's love life.

I like movies with interlocking stories. The cast also features Matt Craven who is featured importantly in the Hunter and Brenneman vignettes. For a nuch better look at this type of movie though, I suggest watching director Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Other than the acting, I can't give a very compelling reason to watch Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her. The acting is accomplished, though, and I'd give the movie a B.

Interesting fact: The director is Rodrigo Garcia, son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Watched alone on Netflix streaming on December 29, 2012.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Every movie critic has his or her biases.  In the genre of fantasy, I like well-made movies (The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example). I am not  a fantasy lover for the sake of fantasy, and every movie that feature a wizard or a quest isn't automatically on my To-Be-Seen list.  Director Peter Jackson did a fine job with bringing JRR Tolkien 's Lord of the Rings novels to the big screen. I was also a fan of Jackson's subsequent remake of King Kong. A Peter Jackson movie now instills a fairly high anticipation factor.

However, I was a little wary about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for two reasons.The first is that I tried -- twice -- to read Tolkien's source novel and couldn't slog my way through it.  Oh, the characters and the plot were fine, but Tolkien's flowery prose just bored me (which is hard to do). Still, I thought the novel would make a good movie in Jackson's hands.

Reason #2: It was then announced that The Hobbit would be made into two films, and then the decision was made to expand it into three! This is clearly a marketing ploy to stretch more dollars out of Middle-Earth. Each of Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies were based on books longer and more complicated than The Hobbit, and none of them warranted more than one feature film. This couldn't bode well for the movie version. Stretching a movie into more than one part is a dismaying trend.  There was Quentin Tarentino's Kill Bill, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Breaking Dawn.  I still haven't seen Kill Bill out of protest for breaking it into two movies, though I've been told that it works well as two separate films and it is now working its way up my mountainous To-Be-Seen list.  The first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the worst entry in the whole Harry Potter series, but the second part was the best.  I still think it would have worked better as a long, epic film. (And I have no desire to see the Twilight movies, so I don't care about how Breaking Dawn was marketed.) Anyway, breaking up a story into separate movies is a peeve of mine, and it brought my anticipation factor towards The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey way, way down.

Still, Jackson's gravitas and the epic nature of the story made me want to catch it in the theater and not wait for home viewing. It turned out a little better than I feared (Score 1 for lowered expectations!). The first half was bloated with some unnecessary filler involving Frodo -- somebody thought that we would miss him in a story that didn't involve him?. Also, the assembly of the 14 members of the team to reclaim the Dwarf kingdom of Eredor smacked way too much like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Been there, done that, though it's an important part of this story too.

The second half of the film kicks into gear and makes the film more than worthwhile.  It essentially divides into two storylines, one involving hobbit Bilbo Baggins and the Gollum creature from The Lord of the Rings films, and the other following the Dwarf warriors and their escape from the Goblins with the help of the wizard Gandalf. These fascinating threads then merge into a single thread that tells of a ferocious Orc seeking his revenge on Dwarf leader Thorin. Jackson's direction in the last half of the film is as accomplished as we would expect from him.

If most of the Dwarfs run together in my head, the main cast is superb.  Martin Freeman's career has been successful -- on TV, he was Tim in the BBC's groundbreaking comedy The Office, and he plays Watson on Masterpiece Classics' Sherlock. Now he will be forever known as Bilbo Baggins. It's hard to imagine anyone other than Ian McKellan portraying the wily Gandalf. Richard Armitage makes a fine, brooding Thorin. From The Lord of the Rings cast,. we once again encounter Hugo Weaving as the Elf Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman and Andy Serkis's CGI-enhanced Gollum.  It's good to see them all.  Less successful is the cameo appearance of Elijah Wood's Frodo.

The great parts of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey bring the so-so parts up to a B+ overall. I did not see this in 3D and do not feel that I missed anything by seeing it in 2D. (I'm so over 3D!). I saw this Pullman Square Marquee Cinemas with my friend Brian on December 28, 2012.