Friday, January 30, 2009

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part XXV

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Charles Laughton is riveting as a defense attorney who takes on a murder case that seems doomed from the start, all the while thwarting the best intentions of his nurse, played by a very funny Elsa Lanchester, who is determined to keep him from killing himself with his vices. Laughton's client's case is shaky at best, but when his prime witness changes sides and testifies for the prosecution, things really get interesting.

Red River (1948)
Well, this marks the third time Walter Brennan has appeared in my movie odyssey, and I must say that he is fast becoming one of my favorite character actors from the 40s and 50s. This is an epic western with John Wayne at the head of a massive cattle drive. Unfortunately, one of the main plot points, wondering whether there actually is a railroad in Abilene, KS, was rendered impotent since I already knew that Abilene was a popular cattle drive destination during the wild (and not-so-wild) west. It was still an entertaining movie, but I did feel the vast landscapes would have been better served if the film had been in color.

Now, Voyager (1942)
This high character drama features wonderful performances from its leads but left no impact on me.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)
This is yet another Hollywood tale of luminous yet damaged people that the Academy loves to give Oscar nominations and awards to but always leaves me wanting something more, and this one was no exception.

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
This is a fun film full of Disney magic. The competitive friendship between Darby and the king of the Leprechauns is a joy to watch, and the effects work just as well today as they did in 1959.

Coming up next: the conclusion of my 2008 movie odyssey which includes a bonus extra movie.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part XXIV

Sons of the Desert (1933)
This is a very funny outing by Laurel and Hardy as they try to convince their wives to let them go on a lodge retreat. In a plot contrivance that I Love Lucy would borrow and recycle endlessly, they lie to their wives to get them to let them leave, but are found out in the end and retribution follows. One of the interesting things I have noticed with Laurel and Hardy's work is that so much of their comedy is physical, their films are almost essentially silent films where the title cards are spoken.

Sideways (2004)
Maybe if I was a disaffected middle-aged man who liked to drink wine I would like this movie more. As it was, I was bored through most of the film and did not care for any of the characters.

C. S. A.: The Confederate States of America (2004)
This mockumentary, done in the style of a straight-laced PBS documentary, tells the story of the history of America with one little deviation from actual history: the South won the Civil War. The whole film is done with a straight face with no winking at the camera. Interspersed throughout are a series of fake commercials for products featuring unflattering racial stereotypes (such as Coon Chicken), products to keep your slaves from running away, and even a COPS style television show about law enforcement hunting down escaped slaves. It is a very sobering film that really brought home to me how slavery actually works. Even though I've read all about it in history books, it happened over 150 years ago, making it seem less real. But seeing how it would work in today's context really brings to light how dehumanizing slavery can be. The real kicker for me was during a segment with the Slave Shopping Network (a takeoff of the Home Shopping Network) in which there is a family of four slaves for sale, and the saleslady says cheerily, "Now you can purchase the whole family or we can break up the set and sell them individually." The film is definitely not for everyone, but it did give me a lot to think about.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
This is yet another take on the "do something desperate while we try to avoid the loan sharks" theme already visited in Mean Streets and Rounders. This is easily the flashiest and most complicated of the three, but with so many characters to follow, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who.

Evelyn Prentice (1934)
This is another outing from William Powell and Myrna Loy, and while they are fun to watch, as always, the story is too serious for their chemistry to have a chance to shine. But rework the script and change some of the characters around, and this might have made a good Thin Man movie.

Coming up next: some AFI catch-up.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part XXIII

Fear(s) of the Dark (2007)
This series of animated black and white horror stories is a wonderful feast for the eyes. Each story is creepy in its own way. It is not for the faint of heart since a couple segments get pretty scary, and since it is a French film, it occasionally descends into weird, sexual stuff.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
This Ernst Lubitsch comedy set the tone for many of the screwball comedies of the 1930s. While the first couple acts come fast and humorous, the third act wades a little too deep into melodrama for me to fully endorse as anything other than an important step in the evolution of the romantic comedy.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
The film has some interesting things to say about guilt, but I was ultimately dissatisfied by the whole. I did like that Woody Allen's character was enamored with watching Singin' In the Rain.

Meet John Doe (1941)
Frank Capra continues his theme of taking an ordinary American and thrusting him into the limelight (see also: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town). It's Gary Cooper again as the honorable American, pretending to be a fictional person dreamed up by a newspaper writer. His sidekick is Walter Brennan who plays a cranky old drifter who lives a crusade against "heelots." Few directors do it better than Capra.

The City of Ember (2008)
The film is full of art direction and creates a fairly believable world. The story works pretty well but unfortunately turns into a theme park ride at the end. This is a minor quibble, however, and most of the film is a lot of fun, especially for those looking for family friendly viewing.

Coming up next: a couple comedies, one of which is funny. Only three more entries to go, and then I can unveil my top and bottom 10 of the year. I know everyone is looking forward to it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part XXII

Child’s Play (1988)
Nothing is quite as freaky as a doll that may or may not be alive, and while Chucky is mostly inanimate the film is very effective. However, once Chucky starts running around attacking big people the film loses a lot of its believability.

Scarface (1932)
I had a hard time getting into this film, though it is probably because Cagney in White Heat was so fresh on my mind that Paul Muni just seemed tame by comparison. It did have some surprisingly funny scenes in it.

A Night in Casablanca (1946)
Another Marx Brothers film, and as always, the plot is rather superfluous. The first half moves a little slow, taking too much time with story, but the second half really picks up. A scene towards the end featuring the brothers hiding in a hotel room while its villainous resident is trying to pack had me in stitches.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
This is the fourth bank heist movie of the year for me. This time the heist is engineered by Al Pacino who orchestrates a media circus when he and his accomplice get trapped inside the bank. This is more of a character piece and it is interesting to watch Pacino's relationships grow and change with his partner, the hostages, and the police surrounding the bank. But two-thirds of the way though the film a homosexual angle comes out of left field and derails the film until the inevitable conclusion. And does John Cazale ever play anyone other than a loser?

Videodrome (1983)
If you like gross films with disturbing, sexual images, this is the film for you. The rest of us should probably stay away. I do think it is interesting that James Woods' television producer tries to air a program that features a combination of pornography and torture. Did David Cronenberg predict today's torture porn?

Coming up next: fear, trouble, and crime.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

My 2008 Movie Odyssey - Part XXI

Happy new year! I'm back from Papua New Guinea and am hoping to finish off my 2008 movie posts in the next couple weeks. I'm pretty behind. I still have 12 movies to write blurbs about, and have already seen two new movies in 2009 (thanks to airline viewing).

Meet the Robinsons (2007)
This is a solid effort that is a lot of fun and kind of silly (but in a good way).

Isle of the Dead (1945)
A group of nine people are trapped on an island and start dying off one by one. Is it the plague, as the doctor declares, or have the gods cursed them for harboring a demon, or some combination of both? This is the best science versus the supernatural themed film from Val Lewton. While some of his films sway one way or the other, this one is left the most ambiguous as to what was really going on. And of course it contains wonderfully atmospheric photography and a domineering performance from Boris Karloff.

Room Service (1938)
According to IMDb, this is the only Marx Brothers movie that was not written specifically for them, and it shows. Groucho is too busy advancing the plot to get many strings of double and triple entendres off, and Harpo does little more than stand around and look out of place. I can't help but think it would have been much better if it had been directed by Howard Hawks and starred either William Powell or Cary Grant in the Groucho role.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
This is another pairing of Myrna Loy and William Powell, this time with Clark Gable in the mix as well. Gable and Powell are foster brothers and best friends. The only problem is that while Powell is a straight-laced politician, Gable is a very crooked-laced gangster. Of course they both fall in love with Myrna Loy (who wouldn't?). Though there are several funny scenes, Manhattan Melodrama is not a comedy and asks serious questions about justice vs. doing the right thing and holding yourself to the same standards you hold others to.

Surf’s Up (2007)
The mockumentary aspects of this animated film are well executed, though there are a few places I found myself thinking, "A real life documentary crew would not have had a camera there." The whole movie is fun, and while the story may be pretty conventional, the fact that it is a mockumentary keeps things fresh. Much better than that other animated penguin movie.

Coming up next: An afternoon and a night facing a video player.