Friday, July 16, 2010

From Here To Eternity

Movie Review: From Here To Eternity

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Reviewed: 16 July 2010

jamesintexas rating--*** 1/2.

From Here To Eternity marks my first film starring Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, and my first film (that isn't Field of Dreams) starring Burt Lancaster. It is pre-Pearl Harbor on Oahu, and Sgt. Milton Warden (Lancaster) deals with his overbearing and corrupt boss while simultaneously making time with his superior's wife (Deborah Kerr) while Pvt. Prewitt (Clift) refuses to box for the company and befriends Pvt. Mazzio (Sinatra) while romancing Lorene (Donna Reed). The film depicts the relationships, hazing, and suffering of these characters as they make their way through pre-war Hawaii.

Lancaster cuts such a figure in this film, physically and with his voice. Clift is pitch-perfect as a tormented ex-boxer who refuses to break. And Sinatra? Completely magnetic; you can't take your eyes off him when he's on screen. The musical scenes break up the film a bit, with the soliders singing the Re-Enlistment Blues at times, and the sense of place is captured beautifully; at times, Diamond Head is poking out of the background as the lovers talk on Waikiki Beach.

The Pearl Harbor attack sequence is frightening and uncertain. The story-telling works and has power. The iconic kiss on the beach with the crashing wave remains iconic. For a film of its time to depict the Army in such a negative, realistic light must have been controversial. The film crashes to a halt with serious melodrama and departures. But, it remains powerful.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Godfather

Movie Reviewed: The Godfather

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Date Reviewed: 14 July 2010

Rating: ****

I haven't seen The Godfather in many, many years, but from the opening shot (a slow zoom out on an undertaker pleading Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) for justice), I was exhilarated. Coppola's film is a bona fide American classic, imbued with rich characters, unforgettable scenes, and towering performances by Brando and Al Pacino.

Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the war hero returning home for the wedding of his sister Connie's (Talia Shire). There's Fredo and Sonny Corleone, the wannabee and hothead brothers, respectively.

I cannot say enough about the opening scenes. Coppola depicts a sense of the inner and outer circles of the Corleone family, with Don Vito and Consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) peeking out at who is arriving at the wedding, commenting on motives and possible requests. Per Sicilian tradition, Don Vito must grant the requests of any man on his daughter's wedding day. Asylum is granted, horses heads are removed, and through it all, Don Vito remains a quietly lethal, yet benevolent figure, arguing against the Corleone family's involvement in the rising drug trade.

Watching the film now as a 31-year old, I was struck by how much Don Vito resembled my own grandfather (or my memories of him). Brando's raspy voice (achieved with the infamous cotton balls and a fitted mouthpiece) make understanding him challenging; his mannerisms and gestures befit a man of his fading power and age. Yet, even at the end, Don Vito's omniscience rules over every scene; he advises his son Michael after an ill-fated assassination attempt leaves Michael to enter the loathed family business.

A few words about Al Pacino. Pacino's power in this movie is his transformation from reluctant warrior into ruthless Mafia don, capable of dispatching anyone with elaborate schemes. The cross-cutting in the final scenes of the baptism and assassinations is one of the most brilliant things I have ever seen on film. Pacino is brilliant; he's degenerated into a caricature today, a bloated, abnormally red-faced histrionic shouter, but he is capable of such depth and power.

It all comes back to those first scenes: wedding celebration, dark work being done in the shadows, singing and dancing, politicians being bribed, family being hugged and welcomed, the posing of a family portrait...resonating with Michael's final, prophetic pronouncement to his ill-fated brother Fredo: "Never go against the family." Indeed.

One of the best films ever made. I will watch this film forever.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Toy Story 3

Movie Review: Toy Story 3

Director: Lee Unkrich

Reviewed: 29 June 2010

jamesintexas rating: ***1/2

Toy Story was the first completely computer-animated film ever when I saw it in 1995. Now, there are more films out there, and the Pixar Renaissance has hit an amazing peak with Wall*E, Finding Nemo, and Up. Years later, Toy Story 3 picks up with the main character Andy going off to college. Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) rally the familiar cast of toys together as they deal with the emotions of not being played with anymore, not being needed by a boy heading off to a different part of his life. Most of the toys end up in Sunnyside Day Care which on the surface appears to be the solution to their problems. At Sunnyside, they will be constantly played with, constantly loved because the children cycle in and out. However, Lotso, the pink bear who lords over the center, rules with an iron fist. Toys are kept in cages at night, there is no possibility of escape, and the wildest, youngest kids obliterate the newest toys, breaking them and not playing with them in an age-appropriate way. A prison break must occur, and afterwards, the question remains: What will Andy do with his toys as he leaves for college?

This film is endlessly inventive and very funny. A highlight is Ken (Michael Keaton) and Barbie's relationship, with Ken recast as a metrosexual in need of someone to appreciate his love of clothes and his Dream House. The escape sequences from Sunnyside pay off in a major way, with intricate plans and subterfuge, as well as a hilarious/creepy set of minor guard characters who aid Lotso in his plan.

The most poignant, tear-jerking moment occurs at the end when Andy passes the torch of the toys to another child. That's when I lost it. Passing on beloved toys to another kid packed an emotional punch for me. The subtext in the film involves the nature of play. To play with toys is to involve yourself in a world of your own creating.

The thing I have always loved in the Toy Story universe is the collision of the toys--Woody the cowboy with Buzz the spaceman, all friends with Mr. Potatohead. In my basement and backyard, the Star Wars characters conspired with the G.I. Joe characters, forming alliances with He-Man and Go-Bots. The world of that creation is a unique and personal thing, sometimes alone in your own head, or sometimes with a treasured friend of family member.

Andy's sister seems to be the quiet symbol of the future in this movie. Her toys and Barbies are thrown out without reflection, and she worships the implied iPod with her earbuds on all the time, even in conversation. The directors draw the contrast but don't underline it. What are kids losing through those devices? Do kids lose the desire and opportunities to play at a much younger age now with the rise of the omnipresent media and technology. Would I have played as much as a kid if I had had the internet, Playstation, cable TV, and access to every movie or TV show? The answer has to be no.

And, as wonderful as an iPod is, will it ever symbolize or mean as much as a piece of plastic, worn-down Boba Fett or Skeletor or Destro? There's something about playing with (loving?) a toy that makes these films so fantastic. The filmmakers get it, and this is entertainment of the highest order.


Movie Review: RocknRolla

Director: Guy Ritchie

Reviewed: 29 June 2010

jamesintexas rating: **1/2

I'm working my way backwards through Guy Ritchie's canon, and first with Sherlock Holmes and now with RocknRolla, I'm starting to get a handle on his aesthetic. Films filled with many creatively-named characters. Some hyperkinetic editing and action scenes. Loads of drinking and drug use. Quick thinking lead characters with quick dialogue. And, some torture, some terrible, terrible deaths. And fun music. To be clear, I liked, did not love Ritchie's RocknRolla, though there are many fun moments and a winning performance from Gerard Butler.

Butler stars as One-Two, a lower-level hood in London with buddy Mumbles (Idris Elba from The Wire), works small muscle jobs in the city under the thumb of local kingpin Lennie Cole (the always great Tom Wilkinson, chewing the scenery and loving his lines) and occasional work from accountant Stella (Thandie Newton). Mark Strong narrates as Archy, Cole's right hand man, providing the colorful backstories and a reliable anchor in the film.

A convoluted caper goes wrong, and a Russian billionaire Uri is out some money he needs to make a land deal go down with Cole. One-Two and Mumbles steal that money with the assistance of Stella, and use that money to pay Cole. A lucky painting is exchanged and goes missing. Money is owed and needed by various characters. Chaos ensues.

The film overflows with characters and story lines, and I think that is one of its weaknesses. There's a thread with a rock star who is possibly dead, possibly hiding, and it weaves in and out of the plot. The action sequences are fun, especially one that involves a low-speed chase between Butler and a titanic Russian heavy. There's some funny back and forth among One-Two and his mates, particularly with one buddy who has one request before going to prison. Wilkinson has a lot of fun, and Ritchie seems overly enthusiastic to showcase all of the layers of the criminal strata in London. At times, this film does seem like a travelogue, but it is fun.

If you're into this kind of film, see it, but don't have any expectations. And for the record, I'd like to see Gerard Butler in this kind of film opposed to flighty romantic-comedies. And seeing Idris Elba aka Stringer Bell with his English accent, looking calm and having fun is refreshing after the intensity of his years on The Wire.

Edge of Darkness

Movie Review: Edge of Darkness

Director: Martin Campbell

Reviewed: 1 July 2010

jamesintexas rating: *1/2

It's difficult to believe that Mel Gibson has not been seen in a film since Signs in 2002, but now he is back in the revenge thriller Edge of Darkness, as a grieving father who must destroy everyone in his path as he searches for his daughter's killers. Gibson stars as Boston cop Thomas Craven, and seven minutes into the film, his daughter is gunned down in front of him at the door of their home. Moments before the killing, his daughter was getting physically ill and mentioned something that she needed to tell him. Since in this kind of film, the only logical response to the death of a loved one is to cut a bloody path of revenge, Craven explores his daughter's internship with Northmoor Industries, a pseudo-weapons research facility which deals with classified materials and classified projects, leading to a slimy lawyer, Senator, and corporate president Jack Bennett (Danny Huston).

The best parts of the movie are conversations between Craven and possible CIA agent Jedburgh (the wonderful Ray Winstone) who seems interested in helping (or in just not stopping) Craven's unraveling of the conspiracy. The worst parts of this movie include everything else. Gibson is dependable and fine as the father, but Huston is so nefarious, the plot complications so ridiculous, and the CGI at times took me out of the movie.

I like action movies, and I can handle revenge thrillers without nuance. However, this film feels sloppy, lazy at times, and uncreative. Director Martin Campbell has made much stronger films, in particular GoldenEye and Casino Royale. I guess part of the appeal of this film is seeing Gibson behaving badly and killing people in different ways.

I do not recommend this film.

Winter's Bone

Movie Review: Winter's Bone

Director: Debra Granik

Reviewed: 1 July 2010, 26 June 2010

jamesintexas rating: **** (4 stars = Highest Rating)

I am always on the lookout for a summer movie that shines with creativity, a unique vision and offers me a window into a world that I have never seen or imagined. Summer seems to be the site of sequels and vapid action films (of which I can be a fan), but Winter's Bone is no sequel or overblown special effects extravaganza. Rather, this quiet, intense film is simply the best American film so far released in 2010.

Southwestern Missouri along the Arkansas border is the setting, bracing up against the Ozark Mountains. It is winter, the characters wear gloves and hats, and it looks frigid; it appears to be that period in November where it gets really, truly cold without the arrival of snow yet. Set against a simultaneously bleak and beautiful landscape of trees, mountains, and animals who follow the characters into town on the way to school, Ree Dolly (a revelatory Jennifer Lawrence, future Oscar nominee for Best Actress) raises her two younger siblings and cares for her invalid mother in a small cabin in the woods while harboring a secret desire to join the Army. Her high school seems to present two options: motherhood and the military. When Sheriff Baskin (the always watchable Garret Dillahunt, Tommy Lee Jones's deputy in No Country For Old Men) arrives at her door one day, Ree learns that her no account father, Jessup Dolly, has been busted for cooking meth and put up the house and land as bond to get out of jail. If Jessup doesn't show for his court date, the sheriff explains, then Ree and her family will lose the house, rendering them homeless and possibly scattering the family.

"I'll find him," Ree states grimly and resolutely, and the journey begins. With purpose, Ree searches through the back country for her dad, marching up hills and stepping over barbed wire and encountering some malevolent and truly dangerous folk who may be tied to her father's drug-cooking ways, some of whom are her own blood relatives. There's Teardrop, her uncle (John Hawkes), who tries to discourage Ree from asking the wrong people the wrong questions about her dad. When his wife tries to plea Ree's case, Teardrop wearily replies, "I already told you once...with my mouth" hinting at the violence that he is capable of inflicting. Ree's journey takes her to small homes and bars, farms and cattle auctions all while staying true to her character. She has two siblings to care for, and the tenderest moments of the film come when she is teaching them how to cook, shoot a rifle, skin a squirrel. "Watch me make this stew," Ree tells her siblings, "so you can make it yourselves."

Without giving more away, let me just say this: Jennifer Lawrence's performance is flat-out phenomenal. Not in a histrionic, big way, but in tiny, compelling ways. The way she talks to her siblings, the way she walks with her mom. With such a strong central performance, it is easy to overlook the supporting cast, but nearly everyone in this film looks and feels authentic. John Hawkes as Teardrop is revelatory and complex. There's music in the background of many scenes, with local people playing the instruments and singing the songs.

What emerges, as some reviewers have pointed out, is a kind of backwoods Omerta, a code of silence among the inhabitants of this small corner of Missouri. When the Sheriff arrives to speak to Ree in the beginning, Granik focuses her camera on the neighbors, watching and studying the exchange in the background. The message implicit is the us vs. them mentality. Ree won't walk into her best friend's house without her husband's permission, and she refuses to beg for food from her neighbor, teaching her brother, "You never ask for what ought to be given." The threat of violence is present in nearly every scene, creating a palpable sense of dread. The mystery drives the story: Where is Ree's father?

Another way of engaging the film is to see it as a story of women. "Ain't you got no men that can do this?" asks one woman who Ree asks for help. She has none. Women both inflict violence upon Ree and bring her sustenance; she goes to the women of her community who provide her with the clues or hints as to where to find her dad or serve as the buffer between her and their men.

This film is simply excellent. I have seen it twice in less than a week, and it is the leading contender for the Best Picture I've seen this year. It evokes a place unseen in a way that is unlike most movies. It reminds me of family and communities examined closely in, say, Sling Blade or Ulee's Gold. The director infuses this story with humanity and dignity; never do the characters become stereotypes or objects of derision. Even a tricky scene with Ree meeting with an Army recruiter ends up being one of the most unexpected and powerful of the film. Upon informing Ree that at seventeen, she will need her parents' permission to join as well as learning that Ree takes care of her two younger siblings, the recruiter kindly tells her "It sounds like it would be more challenging for you to stay at home and take care of yours," acknowledging in a quiet way that Ree's soldiering through the day supporting her family is as difficult and complex as fighting in a foreign land for the army. The notion that Ree is not seen as an adult by the government is nonsensical; she's established herself as fully capable as she wanders the mountains of her community, desperately trying to save her family's home from being destroyed.

A powerful film.