Saturday, May 31, 2008

Piano Man: Five Easy Pieces

Maybe the perfect movie. The reason I say that is that it is everything a screenwriter could do right. Great character development, amazing scene building, genius "simplicity", a touch of biting satire, and a mix of music, love, and the thought of life itself. Jack Nicholson brilliantly plays Robert Dupea, a slacker who has a job at an oil site, who, during his free time, just drinks beer and socializes with his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black, with a great charm) and his friend Elton (Billy Green Bush, who has a hilarious laugh). This involves some great scenes, especially a fantastic scene where Dupea drunkly plays Chopin on a piano on a truck in the middle of a traffic jam. Then, he goes to see his recording artist sister (Lois Smith) in Hollywood, and she tells him that they're father is sick, and that he should go see him. He quits his terrible job, hops into the car with his girl, and heads for Washington. If you expecting an emotional, heartfelt road trip movie to follow, you are way off. This brief road trip involves many great scenes, though, with hitchhikers and toast being primary. When he finally arrives (after dropping his girlfriend off in a motel room), his past catches up to him, and the thought that he could have been a great pianist turns sour, as he realizes how much that they are isolated from the world. He has a brief affair with his sister-in-law (Susan Aspauch), who is another charming character, who has a great scene with a photo montage, when she asks Bobby to play the piano. Finally, his girlfriend does arrive, and he also finds he doesn't want his two worlds to collide. So he once and for all leaves and hitches a ride with a trucker, finally doing his girlfriend a "good thing." That's the whole story. There is nothing to spoil about it. You need to see the movie to get the full effect. The characters in this movie are extremely memorable, but not to an extent where they are not believable. The sort of on and off rhythm of long and short takes completely suits the movie. Nicholson blew me away yet again with another great performance, possibly his most humane he's ever done. He is sometimes extremely emotional, sometimes totally "Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack", and sometimes in between. Black's performance works in the way that it is eccentric and believable at the same time, all the time. Another thing: the direction, by Bob Rafelson, is outstanding. He crafts the movie to it's full potential, and he knows how to make an iconic, emotional, and amazing movie. Bottom line: this movie shows you the subtleness that There Will Be Blood tried to capture, and turns into a masterpiece of excellence and great cinematography (done by Laszlo Kovacs), writing, and characters, a great title, great acting, and a heavy shot of human emotion, making one of the best movies of all time. A

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Man On the Run: 3 Days of the Condor

A very solid, but flawed film by master director Sydney Pollack about the CIA. Robert Redford stars as Joseph Turner (aka The Condor), a CIA worker who reads books and feeds the plots into a computer, which compares the fiction to real CIA cases. Sounds interesting, but if you're expecting a brainy film about books and the Central Intelligence Agency, then this movie will leave you hanging. Anyways, Turner leaves the office to pick up lunch and returns to find that his co-workers have been murdered. The murders were committed by a mysterious man (Max Von Sydow) and two others. This causes the Condor to panic. When he calls his station chief, Higgins (Cliff Robertson), things start to get weird. This involves a scene in an alley in which he is nearly gunned down by some guy he doesn't know from the CIA. This whole set of scenes reminded me much the decent movie F/X, another law crisis/man on the run movie. Another similarity: this experience makes the lead go on a rampage. Unlike F/X, the main character kidnaps a photographer (Faye Dunaway) whose photos are great, but that doesn't really matter. All these scenes between Redford and Dunaway are not very good, and Dunaway's acting seems to have suffered since her amazing turn in Chinatown, which only came out a year before. Anyways, the Condor basically makes her life hell (at least for the first couple of hours he is with her), seduces her (in an all-too-artsy scene), and gets her to help him. Unfortunately, Dunaway also spurts the stupidest line in the movie, something about being an "old spyf*****". What the hell is that? That is almost as bad as "testicle tag team". This movie doesn't deserve that line. Anyways, this plot is really implausible, as it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I don't need to tell you what happens next. There is nothing to spoil, except for an idiotic final scene that seems like it needs a Redford one-liner, but he doesn't deliver it, and it makes the movie feel incomplete. Bottom line: this is a good Pollack movie, but it seems kind of odd that I had to complain about bad writing in one of his movies. At least he improved 7 years later in 1982's Tootsie. But that's a different picture. Tootsie is great, and this just doesn't compete. Not just with Tootsie, but with other spy movies. B

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Words as Weapons: The Great Debaters

An amazing piece of filmmaking that plays the predictable line well and overcomes stereotypical pitfalls of similar movies. Denzel Washington's previous big racial feature that he was in, Remember the Titans (by director Boaz Yakin), is considered a great sports movie. But the truth: it is only great in the way that it helps other filmmakers to avoid its mistakes. It is too sentimental and too Disneyfied. This movie can be the former sometimes, but it really not just a stand up and cheer movie. It is actually a real, serious take on racism and actually features a brief but disturbing lynching that shakes things up. Anyways, Denzel Washington is at the helm of this picture and plays debate coach Melvin B. Tolson well, as a ballbusting leader who will not take crap. Forest Whitaker is the second-biggest name, as James Famer, Sr., a big cheese at Wiley College, the school that this is all taking place at. John Heard co-stars briefly as the racist sheriff, who is seemingly laid back for such a man, but when you see what he does, you can erase that from your mind. All three of these men turn in good performances, but the movie belongs to the young actors led by Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, and the amazing Denzel Whitaker (who was named after Denzel but has no relation to Forrest). Parker and Smollett are extremely good, but it is Whitaker's charm and poise during his final monologue that is enough to seal the deal on this movie. These actors are real finds, and they really carry the movie. The thing is, Denzel is the supporting character, but these guys (and gal) are up to the task of leading. And their performances are polished like the floor of Harvard, the school in which they debate. But this movie isn't perfect. The racism isn't dealt with extremely perfectly (especially Heard's character), and some of the subplots could have been better. But this movie doesn't need to be perfect to get its message across. It's good enough the way it is. Bottom line: when I picked this movie up at the video store, I wasn't expecting much more than an average tearjerker movie. But this movie, laced with humor and extreme thoughtfulness, blew me totally out of the water. It isn't worth a debate: this movie is outstanding. A

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tone Deaf: Music Within

I know now that Steven Sawalich has created a movie so flawed, that no movie this year has compared to it's badness. Sure, it's not the worst movie I've seen, but in a year of moviemaking brilliance, this piece of trailer-trash looks and feels like an unedited mess. I should have known that a blurb by Larry King was the kiss of death. Of the two movies I had seen before, 1 was great and 1 sucked. Those two movies were Friday Night Lights and Ladder 49. I must say that this one belongs with the latter in the category of dumb, horrendous movies. The first twenty minutes are some of the most cruel I've ever heard. Ron Livingston, the actor who plays the main character Richard Pimentel, is reading off the occurrences of terrible events with a very disturbing tongue-in-cheek voice, such as that of his father's death. He's saying what everybody's Kryptonite is, and he reads for his dad "Soy sauce" in that very manner. It's extremely depressing, and it sets a tone that the movie doesn't want to set. Also, the titles are uncoordinated, but that's the least of this movie's problems. The next problem: the Vietnam sequence. Every Vietnam sequence made by an inexperienced director includes the following cliches: the helicopter panning shot, the tall grass shot, and the 60's music playing in the background. This movie uses those cliches and has nothing to offer. Anyways, a bomb blast deafens the lead character and sets off a chain of extremely stupid sequences known as the second act. The movie repeatedly disregards the fact that the lead character is deaf, as in certain bits Pimentel can "hear" people without even looking at them. It's as if you are making a movie about someone with one leg, and the person is suddenly walking with two legs. It's that dumb. I know that this movie is based on a true story, but if the movie keeps straying from the facts, it might as well be a fictional film. Another problem: the movie seems like one huge montage, and it feels as if you could sum the movie into 5 minutes. The narration impairs this movie because it keeps it like an overview and therefore a montage. It's just that you could watch the trailer and get more satisfaction then watching the whole 94 minutes of the movie. Another pitfall: the acting sucks. Ron Livingston, known for his comedic genius in Office Space, plays Pimentel like a robot, spewing lines woodenly and sleepwalking through his role. The problem is he trips and falls down the stairs. Melissa George gives bad girlfriend, as she is a predictable presence. Michael Sheen is the only person that gives the movie watchability, as the cerebral-palsy-suffering friend Art, who gives a performance that would make Daniel Day-Lewis clap. It would have been a wise decision to make him the lead character and Pimentel the supporting character, but judging on the terrible quality and lack of scope this movie possesses, I doubt the filmmakers even thought of that. Another thing: the movie said the mom had died towards the beginning, but apparently not, because she makes an appearance later. I guess the words "she left us" now mean she went to a nursing home. Another thing: for a movie called Music Within, the music choices in this are only 70's hits, really uninspired choices for such a movie. At a certain point, you wish the music was only within and you were deaf to it. One last problem: the stupid writing. Any movie that uses the phrase "testicle tag team" is extremely uninspired. In fact, that phrase should go down in history as a landmark pinnacle of stupidity. Actually, write this movie down for that spot instead. D+

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Man in the Machine: Iron Man

Here is a movie that Transformers doesn't hold a candle to. In fact, it doesn't even hold anything to it. An exhilarating blast from not only the past but the future as this great summer movie employs techniques used before and mixes them with extreme landscapes, architecture, and action. Robert Downey, Jr. is at his absolute best as Tony Stark, a billionaire weapons dealer whose father apparently built the atomic bomb. The son isn't doing to badly either, rolling in big bucks, with a huge, gorgeous house in Malibu and some great cars. Then, during one of his trips to Afghanistan to demonstrate his new missile creation, the "Jericho", the tank he is traveling in explodes, and he is almost killed, and is also kidnapped by a terrorist group (The Ten Rings). He is forced to build another Jericho but instead, with the help of the guy who saved his life by keeping the shrapnel out of his heart (Shaun Toub), he builds a supersuit which he uses to escape. He makes it back to America with a whole new mindset about weapons and their dangers, and decides to build a bigger, better suit to destroy his weapons. But, of course, there has to be a villain, and that villain comes in the form of Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges), Stark's longtime partner who gets angered when Stark makes a speech that makes the stock drop 56 points. He decides to go to Afghanistan and resurrect the suit to fight off Stark. This proves to be an on target plot to add up to greatness. Gwyneth Paltrow co-stars as Pepper Potts, Stark's associate. She has some great scenes, and hits her spots very well. A great thing about this movie is the stylization. "Back in Black" at the very beginning when the tanks are coming forward fits the movie perfectly and sets the whole adrenaline rush in motion. Although Tony Stark's amount of "toys" is a bit on the exaggerated side, it still fits well with the movie. The only scene that I was impartial to was when Potts is performing a sort of surgery on Stark's body. It is the worst written scene in the movie, and it is the stupidest. You only hear the sounds of Potts' hand sloshing through the hole in Stark's body, plus it is dumb that Potts doesn't know what Operation is. The jokes, especially about Stark going into cardiac arrest briefly, are off target. This scene is the only scene that does not flow. Bottom line: this is an extremely humane and personal summer movie that is about a picked destiny instead of some sort of inflicted powers. Downey, Jr., as said before, turns in a wonderful performance, and Jon Favreau has a great vision of FX that few directors have achieved before. A-

Iron Man has violence, and a brief scene of sensuality.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Whip It: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

An essential summer blockbuster that is wittier, more realistic, and better made than even Star Wars. Harrison Ford is amazing in the title role as the whip-carrying, gunslinging tough cookie who is actually quite vulnerable at times, showing up James Bond even, and creating one of America's most beloved action heroes. Karen Allen plays good heroine, as Marion Ravenwood, apparently Jones' ex-girlfriend, who joins him again on his quest. There is such an obvious difference between Allen and Kate Capshaw, the leading lady in the Temple of Doom, it is unbelievable. She is the lead actress in a summer movie possibly ever. She shows up such actresses as Megan Fox (of the abysmal Transformers) or Katie Holmes (of the freakish Batman Begins), or even the second-best of her kind Kirsten Dunst (of the Spider-Man movies). Anyways, the plot is great: there is a covenant agreement platform that was made during the Ten Commandment/Moses age, and all sides want to get it. Even the ruthless Nazis (this movie does take place in 1936) are after it like sharks on blood. The way to get it: simple. Find the medallion and the staff of Ra, and bring them both to an underground bunker, and let the sun shine through the medallion at a precise time and date, and it will show you the place of the covenant platform. Hard part: pulling it off. And Indiana Jones is the only one who can. I won't spoil the great climax or ending, but I will tell you that this is a great film and one of Spielberg's best. This movie solidifies that Spielberg is the master of the summer movie blockbuster (he created the genre with Jaws, a masterpiece). But it also solidifies a change in moviemaking. Before, the FX industry was ruled by the James Bond and Star Wars films. But now, after this particularly great blend of FX, writing, and acting, Indiana rules the ways with his whip and his gun. This movie was not afraid to take risks and it paid off in cold, hard cash at the box office. Thanks to an immensely gratifying opening sequence and many chase sequences, plus a humorous encounter (gun vs. sword), this movie takes its place among the homaged movies, showing that it takes more than a couple of explosions to rule. This is the way that summer movies should be. A

Thursday, May 15, 2008

How the Cookie Crumbles: The Fortune Cookie

Billy Wilder is one of the best directors of all time, and his films like The Lost Weekend, Some Like it Hot, and The Apartment were a joy to watch. The writing was crisp and witty, the acting was tremendous. And for one thing, Wilder knew his playing field. The Fortune Cookie is a somewhat composed jumble of elements that make a good Wilder film and junk that is totally unnecessary. This movie is basic: Jack Lemon plays Harry Hinkle, a Cleveland Browns cameraman who is injured by a collision with Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson (Ron Rich), a punt returner. The collision is about as low-quality as collisions get: you can just see the choreography when Lemmon throws the camera, runs backwards, falls over a tarp, and collapses, then stands up again, then collapses again. It is extremely clunky, and is done by someone who has obviously a rough time with broad slapstick. Anyways, he gets hospitalized (he only has a mild concussion). Enter Walter Matthau as Hinkle's brother-in-law "Whiplash" Willie, who wants to make some money off of Hinkle's injury. So he proposes that Hinkle, having only a mild concussion, fake that he is paralyzed, so Willie can sue the Browns for $1,000,000. This lawsuit becomes plausible after Harry (on sedatives) takes a test inspection from the Browns' doctors. But the Browns don't want to be sued, and they send in surveillance to try to find evidence that this is a scheme. These surveillance guys, played by Cliff Osmond and Noam Pitlik, are the best part of the movie. Now to the backstory: Boom Boom feels bad about "injuring" Hinkle, so he takes care of him. This is utterly depressing, because Boom Boom is such a nice guy, and you wish Hinkle would just tell him. It's so utterly depressing, it ruins the movie-watching experience, as it sometimes falls into the deep end of emotional schmaltz and dark comedy. Now, the acting: Lemmon is okay, trying to stay afloat, Matthau won an undeserved Oscar for his perfomance, Judi West as Hinkle's wife Sandy is okay, and Rich as Boom Boom is pretty good. A negative: there are overly used tones of sexism and racism that are possibly offensive. Plus, the scheme is highly implausible, and it has a terribly unrealistic scene where Matthau somehow gets the Browns to keep settling for higher and higher amounts of money. Bottom line: this movie which sparked The Odd Couple doesn't have the charisma to be a great Wilder film, it doesn't have the quirkiness to be a Lemmon cult classic, and it has too much sloppy piecing to be even a very good film. B

Monday, May 5, 2008

Downpour of Genius: Singin' in the Rain

Part amazing dancing and singing, part insanely accurate and ahead-of-its-time Hollywood satire and critique, and part masterful performances from Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, this astonishing musical is the flat out best musical of all time. This movie owns the genre, creating hilarious laughs while setting up spectacular dance sequences. Kelly is Don Lockwood, a silent film big cheese and star, who is caught between the drift between silents and talkies, as Hollywood is "learning to talk" and it's the next big thing (The Jazz Singer is a huge hit). Jean Hagen is the egotistical Lina Lamont, who is Lockwood's screen partner who is having a terrible time transitioning (described hilariously in a microphone catastrophe scene). When the film they made "The Dueling Cavalier" bombs, Lockwood, his friend and piano player Cosmo (O'Connor), and his lover Kathy (Reynolds) decide to convert it into a musical with Kathy dubbing for Lamont. This proves for some major laughs also. But the amazing thing about this movie is how smart it is compared to how dumb it could be. It lampoons the whole idea of gossiping and being an adoring fan very well, and very smoothly. The singing and dancing are amazing, too, as O'Connor and Kelly are dancing machines on tons of numbers that are a joy to listen to, especially Kelly's signature "Singin' in the Rain," and O'Connor's almost breakdancing "Make 'Em Laugh". This movie is so all-encompassing, it even has a Fellini-style Broadway sequence that is extremely freaky and outlandish, while still applying many innovative techniques. I was expecting a lesser brilliant, more laid back, more Hairspray-ish musical, but I found a masterpiece, a gem that shines brightly, a movie that deserves the No. 5 spot on the AFI Top 100 list hands down. This movie gleams like the many sequins that the dancers wear and it is a great film, that stands right up to the all-time greats. In fact, it is one. A

Friday, May 2, 2008

A Shot in the Dark: In the Heat of the Night

The first real "buddy cop" movie shows The French Connection up in the category of personal drama. Rod Steiger stars brilliantly in an Oscar-winning role as Bill Gillespie, the police chief in the extremely racist town of Sparta, Mississippi (follows in the footsteps of the other Greek-named Southern city, Athens, Georgia). When a murder is committed, he first suspects Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, in one of his best performances), a black homicide detective from Philadelphia that happened to pass through and be leaving at the train station near the time of the murder. After he realizes Tibbs is a cop (and Poitier delievers the famous "They call me..." line), he sets him on the case, as he is an expert with bodies and stuff. What develops is a close-but-still-so-far-away friendship that is one of cinema's best pairings ever. The best part is that they don't get too close (the closest they get is the subject of old flames or lack of them) and Steiger helps keep their distance marginal and have it be strictly business. The biggest mistake this movie made was making everyone else besides Steiger and Poitier one-dimensional, so it's basically a review of old racist movies that this film should not be lumped with, because it is more personal. The movie, though, falls into crap when some good ol' boys chase Poitier around town and try to beat him up but don't succeed because Steiger intervenes. And, although, the suspense is tight and fun, I figured out who murdered the victim moderately before the film wanted me to. Those are the two major flaws the movie had. But this movie is better than The French Connection, even though The French Connection is more unique. Why? Because you can't relate a lot with Hackman's gritty Popeye Doyle or anyone else, because it has the same one-dimensional type problem against it too. Even though Connection may have the chases and wit and French actors, I think that Night is better, because it is less about just the police and more about humanity, which it knows very well. A-