Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Bambi is another one of those Disney movies that I can't accurately remember if I've ever seen all the way through or not. We had Bambi on VHS when I was a kid, but as hard as I tried, I just couldn't recall any scenes that weren't about Bambi as a fawn. I had the vague memory that he grew up at some point, and of course, I know what happened to his mother. I think a lot of kids might only remember the first portion of the movie, and like I did as a child, lose interest once the young animals grow up.

Bambi is Disney's ode to the circle of life (before The Lion King, I suppose). At the opening of the movie, all the woodland critters are abuzz with the news that the new Prince has been born. They gather around the mother deer and we meet Bambi. We then follow Bambi and his best friend and guide, the rabbit Thumper, as he learns to walk and talk, experiences his first rainstorm, learns the boundaries between nature and Man's World, struggles with mortality, falls in love, and ultimately, has a family of his own.

As a child, I didn't really appreciate Bambi on the level it deserved. It's not really anything like any other Disney film. The closest comparison would probably be Fantasia, Disney's other symphonic ode to nature. I am continually in awe of the way Disney's animators brought life to animals, humanizing them while keeping their behavior recognizable as their species. There are multiple different animation styles utilized throughout Bambi, ranging from the cute, big eyed designs we all know and recognize, to the amazing impressionistic style employed later, during the forest fire. The backgrounds are ridiculously lush. One of the best sequences in the movie is a musical diversion from the main story, the ridiculously earwormy April Showers song, a vignette showing all the wildlife reacting to a rainstorm.

I can see why kids latch onto the early part of the film, and not so much onto the later. It's beautifully done, and I appreciate it now, but there's little to no dialogue at the end, and the characters are no longer relatable to a child. Still, the level of quality maintained by these early Disney features is pretty unbelievable.

For my other reviews of classic Disney movies, follow these links:

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


Sleeping Beauty

Flash Gordon

Ahh, the space opera. This is a genre I have a deep love for, even the kinda shitty entries. A good space opera takes us to all sorts of weird and wondrous places, pits the best of the good versus the worst of the evil. They have larger than life characters (and actors), and little to no attention is paid to the laws of physics.

I don't know how I'd never seen Flash Gordon before. Based on the classic comic strip and serial shorts, Mike Hodges' Flash Gordon movie was one of many similar (but inferior) space operas made in the wake of Star Wars. The title character, played by Sam J. Jones, is a football star, who along with a plucky journalist and a mad scientist, are transported to the world of the malicious space dictator, Ming the Merciless, and must lead a rebellion and save the earth from his tyranny. It's campy and silly from the very premise, but entirely watchable, made so by some pretty decent filmmaking, and a cast of actors playing their characters with earnest conviction.

I especially liked Timothy Dalton as Prince Barin, a rival who Flash must form an unsteady alliance with to defeat Ming, who is played by Max von Sydow. You've also got the boistrous Brian Blessed, as Prince Vultan, a Hawk Man who has never heard of the concept of indoor voices.

Sam J. Jones doesn't speak very much in the lead role, but he looks the part. I assume they casted him for his looks and not his ability to get inside a character. Or perhaps there's not a good deal of character to get inside. It's ok, though, because the rest of the cast elevates him. There's a ridiculous but enjoyable sequence early on where he takes down a bunch of Ming's evil guards by using his football skills.

The most famous and enduring part of the Flash Gordon movie is, of course, the score, composed by the legendary rock band, Queen. In fact, I owned the soundtrack long before I ever saw the movie. The theme song is a Queen classic (FLASH! AHHHAHH...SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!). I wish there were actually more pop songs mixed in with the synthesized score, they would have fit into the movie just fine, and nobody wrote pop songs like Queen.

Flash Gordon is a pretty fun movie, if you don't mind the goofiness. Which I don't. I liked the universe it was set in, which was imaginative and rich, and weird. The cheese just adds to the overall craziness of the thing. It's kind of like male Barbarella with significantly less sex stuff. On a Space Opera scale with Star Wars Prequels as the low and the original Star Wars flicks as the high, Flash Gordon would be nestled comfortably somewhere in the middle.


MTV's The State was a sketch comedy show in the early 1990's that connected with an entire generation of comedy nerds, myself included. Though the show came and went, what is really amazing is the fact that the group has never stopped working together in various combinations ever since. Several members have made names for themselves behind the scenes, writing and directing various TV shows and popular movies, while others have become successful in front of the camera, often as character actors and scene stealers. All of us who watched and loved The State on MTV have claimed these comedians as our own and followed their careers ever since.

Of all of these cast members, my personal favorite has been David Wain, who has built a career co-writing, directing, and producing some of the weirdest, most surreal, and culty comedies to have come out in the last decade or so. From his semi-autobiographical webseries, Wainy Days, to his true cult classic feature debut, Wet Hot American Summer, Wain always stamps his own distinctive sensibilities into everything he works on. His newest movie, Wanderlust, is no different.

Co-written by Wain and former The State member Ken Marino, Wanderlust follows Role Models as their second foray into more mainstream filmmaking. It's the story of George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston), a New York couple, who after several major financial setbacks, decide they can't take it in the city anymore. George's brother Rick offers him a job in Georgia, so they pack their car and head south. On the way down, they have an enchanting night at Elysium, a bed and breakfast that is actually a hippie commune. After George's brother's offered life proves itself to be a nightmare, George and Linda decide to drop out and move back to Elysium. Complications ensue when George realizes that the hippie lifestyle is not as magical as the first night made it seem, while Linda begins to embrace it wholeheartedly.

The movie reminded me very much of the classic Albert Brooks comedy Lost in America (one of my favorites), but with David Wain's sensibilities. He loves to drag jokes out well past the point of being funny and back into being funny again (such as George's hilariously crass, loooong attempt at hyping himself up in front of a mirror for an upcoming extramarital sexual encounter). Wain also plays fast and loose with his script, and many of the best gags feel very in the moment. There's a great, long run with Alan Alda, repeatedly insisting that "Money buys nothing. LITERALLY." Some of his usual trademarks are sacrificed by the mainstream nature of the movie, like the way he messes with things like continuity, or will leave in an actor obviously blowing a take just because it's funny, or including jokes that are intentionally and knowingly terrible, and trusting the audience to understand that. Despite those sacrifices, the tone remains light and silly.

The cast of Wanderlust is pretty amazing, largely filled with David Wain regulars. Paul Rudd has long been a veteran of Wain's films, from way back, even before he was Judd Apatow's go-to guy. The two of them share an understanding of each other. They find the same things funny. Jennifer Aniston is a good sport and throws herself into it, managing to fit in decently well. Six former The State cast members turn up in various roles, but the real scene stealer is Joe Lo Truglio as Wayne, the loveable nudist winemaker/novelist, who doesn't wear a stitch of clothing through the entire film.

Wanderlust is a pretty good entry into the post-Apatow comedy category, and it's more mature and focused than Wain has previously been, but I can't help but miss the utterly bizarre, silly, and non-sequitur qualities of his first two independent films, Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten. This feels like those two movies in some respects, and certainly more so than his previous film, Role Models. Still, I'm such a fan of David Wain, his unique voice, and all these great people he regularly teams up with. I know it didn't open too strongly, but I think Wanderlust will find an audience in the future. It's a really funny movie.

Blood and Roses

Roger Vadim's Barbarella has been one of my favorite films ever since I first saw it a decade or so ago. Even though it's campy and ridiculous, it holds up as an entertaining film, with great visuals, and set in an imaginative, fully realized universe. I don't know why it took me so long to think, "Hey, I wonder if Roger Vadim made any other movies?"

Well, I finally did think that, and after some rudimentary research on Wikipedia, I learned that the answer is, yes. He made a lot of other movies, some to much acclaim. After a little bit more looking, I learned that one of those other movies can be found on Netflix Instant Watch, and it is, of all things, a vampire movie. Awesome!

Blood and Roses (1960, French title: Et Mourir de Plaisir) is based on the classic Gothic story Carmilla, which itself was a predecessor to and influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula. A group of friends are staying at an ancestral home in Italy, celebrating Leopoldo and Georgia's engagement. Carmilla (Annette Vadim, the director's second of MANY wives), in love with Leopoldo, is jealous and depressed, unwilling to go outside for the costume party at the family graveyard.

Drawn hypnotically to an old wedding dress, Carmilla dons it and trance-walks into the crypt of its owner, Mircalla, a vampire who takes over her mind. Her friends don't pay much attention the changes in Carmilla at first, animals are afraid of her, her skin is cold. Every day, she must secret herself off to the place of her burial, in order to survive. At night, she hunts and feeds on innocent girls.

Blood and Roses is one of the coolest vampire movies out there. It has a great story, told with atmospheric and surreal cinematography by Claude Renoir (who also shot Barbarella). And as a bonus, the girls are totally 60's French sexy.

The only problem is that the version on Netflix is dubbed, and I don't know for sure, but it looked to me like the sides of the frames were cropped. I've heard the film was edited for release in America, and this may have been that cut. I would love to see the full French language version of the film.

Carmilla has been adapted more than once before. I read that Dreyer's silent film, Vampyr is somehow based on it, but it bears little similarity to Blood and Roses. There's another one from 1970 produced by Hammer, that I'm probably going to check out in the future. I assume it's going to be more of an exploitation film than Blood and Roses (which also has its share).

I'm going to have to watch more of Roger Vadim's films now, too. I'm happy to see that Barbarella wasn't a fluke, and that he totally had directing chops.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Sonatine is a 1993 Japanese crime thriller written and directed by and starring Takeshi Kitano. I believe it's the first movie that garnered him international attention as a director.

Kitano stars as Murakawa, a Yakuza guy who has kind of had it with being a Yakuza, and is looking for a way out. When he and his men are sent to Okinawa for what is essentially some busywork, Murakawa smells a rat and suspects that his bosses are planning to get rid of him. When it turns out he was right, Murakawa and some of his men go into hiding at a beach house in the hopes that this will all blow over.

This second act of Sonatine is what really sets the movie apart from other crime films. While at the beach house, the characters essentially goof off Yakuza style for a good long while. They play games and tease each other, Murakawa plays pranks such as digging sand traps for them to fall into. But it isn't all about laughs. There's a melancholy feel to all the scenes, and the fun and games have a violent underpinning to them, as this is the only life these Yakuza guys really know. There's a scene where Murakawa spies two of his underlings shooting a can off of each others' heads. He approaches them and it quickly becomes a tense game of Russian Roulette. It plays as a reminder of just what these guys are capable of, and also gives us a glimpse of the inner turmoil Murakawa is experiencing.

The strange turbulent peace of act two eventual comes to an abrupt end, and the third act features Murakawa turning the tables on the people who are out to get him, and I'm sure I don't have to tell you things get pretty bloody.

Sonatine is a very well made movie, and pretty enjoyable, although it can be kind of depressing at times too. Don't hold out for a happy ending, folks. You pretty much know from the get go that there's no way that's going to happen. The whole middle section is where Sonatine shined for me, and I believe it is what ultimately makes the movie richer and more thoughtful than other crime movies of this type.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Revenge (Adauchi)

Here's the thing: this is the last samurai movie that I can find on Netflix Instant that I haven't already seen. I don't know what I'm going to do. I need samurai movies to survive!

Tadashi Imai's Adauchi (Revenge, in English) is an effective movie that covers ground well traveled in the samurai genre: You guessed it. Revenge. You know, how revenge only leads to madness and destruction, and the undoing of not only you, but your loved ones, etc. To seek revenge is a hollow endeavor.

Revenge is the story of Shinpachi Ezaki, a young samurai at the very bottom of the military ranks of his clan. When approached and dressed down by a man from another family, higher in the social strata, he stands up for himself, and is challenged to an illegal duel to the death. His brother tries to stop it from going down, but arrives too late. Shinpachi has won the duel.

Shinpachi's family, fearing the consequences his victory will bring, argue with the clan leader that both men broke into a temporary fit of insanity when the duel broke out, and rather than have him executed, Shinpachi is exiled to a monastery.

At the monastery, Shinpachi grows paranoid and unstable, without purpose or direction. His situation only worsens when the younger brother of the man he killed seeks him out for his own revenge, and he kills him too. The only way to peacefully solve this whole ordeal and maintain his own honor and that of both families is for Shinpachi to face the third brother of his rival in a duel and allow him to win.

Wow, hey, revenge is exhausting.

Revenge is a really well done samurai movie, made in a period where, as far as I can tell, every samurai movie was really well done. I have not been let down by a samurai movie from the 50's or 60's yet. I always kind of wondered what the other studios besides Toho were up to at this time. I don't think I've seen many. Most samurai movies that get released in America begin with that Toho Studios logo. I know there were other studios in Japan, and it was nice to see that they were making quality films too during Japan's most creatively fertile cinematic period.

My review probably didn't do it much justice, but the characters in Revenge had a lot of depth and subtlety, and the story was filled with tension. I really liked the lead guy's performance and also the old man who played the monk he befriends. I don't think I ruined too much of the story, even though I went kind of deep into it. I promise you I didn't spoil the ending. Check it out.

I hope Netflix Instant puts out some more samurai stuff before I go into withdrawal and start watching Yojimbo on a permanent loop.

The Lady Eve

Preston Sturges was one of the great comedy directors of the 1940's. 1941's Sullivan's Travels is one of the funniest and most touching films ever made. It's amazing to me that he made that and The Lady Eve, one after the other, in the same year.

The Lady Eve is a screwball romantic comedy starring Barbara Stanwyck as Jean, part of a father-daughter con team that sets her sights on Charles "Hopsy" Pike (Henry Fonda), the heir to a huge Ale company. She arranges a chance meeting with him on a ship on his way home from a year studying snakes in the Amazon. He falls right into Jean's hands, and falls head over heels for her, as she starts planting the seeds for the big swindle.

Things are complicated, however, when Jean starts to fall for Pike as well. When Pike's bodyguard, Muggsy, smells a rat, calls in some favors, and reveals her true identity to him, a heartbroken Pike dumps Jean. Jean, furious at being spurned, then decides to get her revenge by reentering his life as a different woman, The Lady Eve, and bleeding him dry.

The two leads are perfect in their roles. Stanwyck is excellent as the manipulative and hard-hearted Jean/Eve, who keeps her vulnerability always under the surface, and Fonda is the perfect mark as Pike, filled with a nearly endless supply of naivete and trust. When Jean reappears in his life as Eve, Pike rationalizes that Jean would never come into his home without a disguise, so the resemblance must be a coincidence.

The Lady Eve is one of the great comedies. It's smart, silly, and romantic, all at once. The dialogue is endlessly clever, and loaded with the kind of snappy one-liners that the best movies of the time (many of them Preston Sturges movies) were known for. I do like Sullivan's Travels more than this, but you really can't go wrong with either.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Italian Job (1969)

Peter Collinson's The Italian Job is one of the coolest movies ever made. Almost everything about it is "cool", or at least embodied what was "cool" in 1969. It's a slick, funny heist movie, a smart comedy, and an action movie all rolled into one. It has a score by Quincy Jones, one of the coolest composers ever. And let's face it, you don't get much cooler than 1960's Michael Caine (or now Michael Caine, for that matter).

Caine plays Charlie Croker, a career criminal just released from prison, who catches wind of a big heist in Italy from the widow of a deceased friend. He had the heist all planned out, but was executed by the Mafia in Italy before he could pull it off. Croker, with the help of a crime lord still in prison, assembles his own crew of specialists and getaway drivers to finish the Italian Job.

The heist involves them starting a traffic jam in Rome and robbing an armored car full of gold bricks in broad daylight. And they have to do it from right under the noses of the local authorities and the mafia.

Michael Caine is the greatest. He is so fun to watch in this movie, he gets tons of great one liners and exchanges with the other characters. Even though his character is a criminal, he's so charming and likeable that you want him to succeed.

The one weak link for me in the movie is the casting of Benny Hill. Now, I understand that even Benny Hill was considered cool back in England, 1969. But I just can't find him funny. He doesn't work for me. For what it's worth, I think he was really well cast, as the computer guy they enlist from a sanitarium. They imply he was a rapist or at the very least a sex offender, which is pretty appropriate for Benny Hill. But then they try to make him lovable, like these are just some wacky quirks he has. And yes, there is a scene where he squeezes a fat lady's butt and chases her around in fast motion.

The car chase at the end is one of the best ever, not far behind the one in The French Connection. It wins a lot of points for having the three getaway cars be mini coopers. The final scene is hilarious, and I'm not going to spoil it, because it's such a treat. I will say, I think it owes a little something to Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear.

The Italian Job is such a fun movie. It reminded me a lot of Steven Soderbergh. In fact, though I have never seen the original Sinatra Ocean's 11, I would not be surprised to learn that Soderbergh took more inspiration from The Italian Job for his remake. They have pretty much the same sense of style and humor. Check it out!

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Nothing will keep me away from a new movie by Studio Ghibli on opening weekend. Like Pixar, they've earned that trust. One after another, they have released movies with lush, beautifully animated, fully realized fantasy worlds, and relatable, human stories.

The newest Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arrietty, is a little different. Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Arrietty takes our own daily home environment and resizes it into a vast, dangerous world full of adventure and peril.

Based on the classic series of children's novels The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty is the story of Arrietty, a tiny girl who lives under the floorboards of a country house with her stern, protective father, and her jumpy, fearful mother. They are Borrowers, a secret race of bug-sized people who live off of the items that human beings, or Beans, as they call them, don't need or will never miss.

On her first Borrowing outing with her father, Arrietty is mistakenly seen by Sean, a sickly Bean boy her own age, staying at the country home with his aunts while awaiting a heart surgery. Sean has long been told of the little people in the floor by his mother, who never stopped believing in them.

As Sean reaches out to befriend Arrietty, her parents realize that they've been made, and knowing the two worlds can never meet, opt to pack up and leave before Arrietty's curiosity gets the best of them all. Meanwhile, they must contend with Sean's aunt, who has been trying to prove their existence for years, and is believed to be a bit off her rocker.

My favorite scenes were just watching the way the Borrowers navigated the human world. Arrietty's first Borrowing was a lot of fun, because we got to see the way they utilized strips of tape to scale tables, and old lost earrings as grappling hooks, and so on. I also really enjoyed the house cat. Ghibli always does great work when animating realistic animal behavior, and the cat has some really funny moments.

Though not my favorite of Studio Ghibli's films, Arrietty is still quite good. It drags on a little bit too long, but a lot of Hayao Miyazaki's films have a slower pace than American kids are used to. I think American kids and Japanese kids might have different attention spans. Or maybe the kids in our audience were just particularly squirmy.

I would recommend The Secret Life of Arrietty as a good movie for the whole family, though if your kid is impatient or the type that wants something noisier, you might want to just wait to show it to them on home video. Still, I don't have any kids, I just like movies. My wife and I saw it on our own and we both enjoyed it a great deal.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Bedazzled (1967)

I've seen pretty much all of the big comedies that you are supposed to have seen, but somehow, Stanley Donen's Bedazzled has managed to elude me until now. I saw the remake back in 2000, and I am happy to the original is much, MUCH better.

Bedazzled is written by and starring the comedy duo of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. It follows the journey of Stanley Moon (Moore), a lowly fry cook at Wimpy's, hopelessly in love with Margaret (Eleanor Bron), the waitress. Unable to work up the nerve to even talk to her, Moon is approached by none other than the devil himself (Peter Cook), who goes by the name of George Spiggott these days. In exchange for his soul, Spiggott will grant him seven wishes in order to win over Margaret.

Each wish rewrites reality and Stanley attempts to win over Margaret with his newfound advantages; as an intellectual, a rock star, a rich man, etc. Moon quickly realizes that every wish he makes comes at a price, as Spiggott exploits loopholes in his wording to make sure Stanley strikes out every time.

The three leads, Cook, Moore, and Bron, are all really great. Each time Stanley makes a wish, they effectively transform into different characters, so they each end up playing several. My favorite wish was when Stanley turns into a rock star. He dances around the stage, desperately screaming for love. All appears to be going well, Margaret is swooning for him. That is, until the next act begins, and Spiggott comes out and sings a song that comes across as effortlessly cool as Stanley's came across desperate. He wins the screaming girls over, and Stanley the rock star has lost out to the next big thing and fleeting nature of fame.

Also included in the cast are George Spiggott's employees, the seven deadly sins, which include cameos by Barry Humphries as Envy and Raquel Welch as Lust. She's all over the posters and ads for the movie even though she's only in two scenes.

I also love the banter between Cook and Moore. They had such great chemistry, and the movie demonstrates it. The movie is very smart and heavy with well written dialogue between the two of them. It isn't all dialogue, though. Moore shows off his physical comedic chops and there is plenty of silliness to go around. For example, whenever a wish goes bad and Stanley wants out, he has to blow a raspberry with his mouth. This provides for some pretty amazing comedy, as it gets funnier and funnier with each wish.

Bedazzled is hilarious. It's one of the all time great comedies. I thought I had seen them all. I wonder what else I've missed?

Friday, February 17, 2012

High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku)

Every once in a great while, one has that feeling while watching a movie that they are watching one of the best movies they have ever seen. It's a thrill, and naturally, the older I get and the more movies I see, the less frequently I experience this rush. But as luck would have it, there are still a whole bunch of Akira Kurosawa movies out there that I have yet to watch.

High and Low, my eighth Kurosawa film, and the first I've seen set in the present day (1963, that is), is many different films at once. A kidnap thriller, a police procedural, a morality tale, and an examination of class disparity, and it's all filled with the same compassion and humanity that Akira Kurosawa brought to everything he made.

The story opens with Gondo (the legendary Toshiro Mifune), an executive for a shoe company, who is poised to take over the company and oust the other men on the board, who want to make cheaper shoes and charge more money for them. After a meeting with these men goes sour, he gets a telephone call, where an unknown voice tells him that his son has been kidnapped and demands a ransom of 30 million Yen. It quickly becomes apparent that it was not his son that was kidnapped, but rather the son of his chauffeur. The kidnapper tells Gondo that he must pay the ransom anyway, and Gondo must now come to the decision: must he give up his entire fortune for another man's son?

The first hour of the movie is almost like a play, the drama rarely leaving Gondo's home. What is truly amazing about this first hour is the way it's shot. Kurosawa uses long takes, sometimes 5 minutes or more, each shot carefully composed to maximize the emotional impact of what the characters are going through. He shows a mastery of spacial dynamics between the characters, often making social statements just with where they are positioned compared to each other in the frame.

Then, an hour into the movie, it makes an abrupt and complete change. The action leaves Gondo's home, and the focus shifts almost completely away from Gondo, over to Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai, the star of Kagemusha), the man tasked with hunting down and arresting the kidnapper. He and his team are good detectives, and what follows is a fascinating police procedural, as we watch them solve the mystery.

Amidst all this is a very large social statement. We learn that Gondo's large, air conditioned (a luxury at the time) home is located high atop a hill over the city of Yokohama, seemingly arrogantly looking down on the poor people below, sweating and suffering during a summer heatwave. There is a sense of local resentment toward Gondo and his place in society. Eventually, we follow the detectives and the kidnapper (played brilliantly and almost silently by Tsutomu Yamazaki) into the lowest place in the city, where heroin addicts lay in the gutter and writhe in agony.

I could go on and on how incredible High and Low is, but then you wouldn't really have any reason to watch it yourself. Kurosawa is, in my estimation, the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, and this is right up there with Seven Samurai and Rashomon as one of his greatest achievements. And those are just among the ones I've seen!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Midnight in Paris

I haven't watched any of Woody Allen's recent movies since Scoop, so I don't know how he's been doing lately, but based on the overall integrity his huge body of work, he'll always be one of my favorite filmmakers. He's made some stinkers in his time, but when he's on, his movies shine.

Midnight in Paris is one of those shiny movies, a whimsical fantasy about the magic of Paris; the city's ability to transport you to another time. At the same time, it's also a dose of reality. The past can never live up to the nostalgia-laced version you see in your mind's eye. It is very much a companion piece to Allen's classic, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter of hacky Hollywood movies, trying to launch a more fulfilling career as a novelist. On a visit to Paris with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams), he expresses his desire to stay in the city and live a Bohemian life like his heroes of the 1920's. Inez scoffs at this, and encourages Gil to spend time with her parents (Tea Party Republicans who don't like him) and know-it-all friends.

Fed up with the people in his life, Gil opts out of yet another night out, and chooses to wander the streets of Paris. At midnight, a 1920's car rolls up and waves him in. Inside, he finds the life he always dreamed of. He befriends F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso. He shows his manuscript and takes writing advice from Gertrude Stein. He meets and falls in love with Picasso's mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

Soon, Gil is carrying out a love affair with the 1920's, spending his days in the cold reality of today, and his nights living it up with his heroes in the past. Eventually his night life gets complicated, too, though, and Gil must decide between his two lives.

I do believe this is the best Owen Wilson has been in a movie in ages. Since Royal Tenenbaums, perhaps? Heck, maybe ever. This is exactly the kind of movie he should be making. He's great at playing intelligent, soul searching, existential characters. I always thought his diversion down the path of dumb "Frat Pack" comedies like Wedding Crashers was a mistake (though I do love Zoolander). In Midnight in Paris, Wilson plays the Woody Allen analogue without doing a Woody Allen impression, something I never enjoy as much. My favorite moments were the dumbfounded look on his face when he realizes where he is, and the scene where he confesses that he's from the future to Salvador Dali and his surrealist friends.

Midnight in Paris is a delight. It is my favorite Woody Allen film that I've seen since 1999's Sweet and Lowdown. I never hammered down a list or anything, but I would probably also put it somewhere in my top 10 for 2011, and hey, it might even creep its way into my top 10 favorite Woody Allen movies! The guy has a LOT of great movies, so this is high praise indeed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Grey

Look, man, it's got Liam Neeson vs. wolves. I don't even know why you need to read a review.

Actually, The Grey is a little bit more than that. Liam Neeson stars as John something-or-another (I have to go all the way to Wikipedia? Forget that!), a guy way deep in Alaska hired by a company to keep wolves away from the workers. He is deep in despair, on the brink of suicide, when the transport plane he's riding crashes in the middle of nowhere, in a blizzard. They soon discover they are smack in the middle of a pack of wolves' hunting territory. Being the only guy there with any real survival skills, he takes it upon himself to help the few survivors of the crash find their way to safety, and, along the way, learns a little something about having the will to live himself.

The movie is extremely bleak and harrowing. I won't tell you who all lives and who dies, but I'll say that not very many make it. These guys are intruding on the wolves' territory, and they are injured and tired and hungry and easy to hunt. All it takes is for a guy to fall back from the group for the wolves to bear in and rip him to shreds. The message in the end is kind of positive, if you consider the message of the world is hard and cruel but you have to keep on fighting anyway a positive message. And I kind of do.

The Grey is the first movie I've seen by director Joe Carnahan, and I have to say I am impressed. The script and acting were solid, and I don't just mean Neeson, who is reliable, I also mean the rest of the guys. They could have just been stock characters or wolf bait, but instead, they were treated as real people with real reasons to live back home.

The cinematography is top notch, too. It brings a very immediate feel to the movie, like you're there with these guys and experiencing it first hand. There are some genuinely scary shots of the wolves, especially at night, when you can see their glowing eyes watching you as your bonfire is all that keeps them from pouncing.

Speaking of the wolves, I'm not sure how much of them were real, or when they were stuffed, or animatronic or CGI. I don't believe there was very much CGI, but Carnahan does a stellar job of integrating various methods to make you believe these man-eating wolves are really sharing the screen with these wolf-feeding men.

As I said before, I don't even know why you need to read a review, you should go watch Liam Neeson be awesome. The movie isn't just some dumb action movie about a superhuman Neeson wrestling wolves, as the trailers kind of sold it. It's an intense, well made survival movie with a bit of substance that also features an all-too-human Neeson wrestling wolves.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Diamonds are Forever

Here it is, folks. The moment you've all been waiting for: The final James Bond movie to star Sean Connery. Unless you count Never Say Never Again, which I don't, because it's produced by a different studio and not a part of the actual series. This brings the series I started in December full circle. If you wish to read the rest, here they are:

- Dr. No
- From Russia with Love
- Goldfinger
- Thunderball
- You Only Live Twice
- On Her Majesty's Secret Service

And now, finally, comes Diamonds are Forever. I don't know what brought Sean Connery back to the role of Bond ($$$) after retiring from the role with You Only Live Twice ($$$), but I'm betting it had something to do with getting a great script ($$$), or the promise of a chance to play a different side of 007 after the life-changing events of the previous movie ($$$), or possibly the opportunity to work with Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton again ($$$). Whatever the reason, Connery is back as Bond... with a vengeance!

After the events of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, highlight for SPOILER His wife was murdered SPOILER, 007 has an axe to grind with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, nefarious criminal leader of SPECTRE. The movie opens with Bond tearing his way across the world, tracking down Blofeld by choking henchwomen with their bikini tops and such. He finds Blofeld before the credits, trying to alter one of his men to look like him, to use as a decoy and escape Bond's vengeance. Bond gets him anyway, before the opening titles, and the viewer is robbed of the exciting, take no prisoners James Bond movie they were hoping for.

After that, Bond is pretty much fine, and ready to take on a mission again. He is assigned to pose as a diamond smuggler and follow the diamonds to their destination, in order to uncover the smuggling ring. The main Bond girl this time is Tiffany Case, played by Jill St. John, a fellow diamond smuggler who likes to wear wigs, apparently.

Bond traces the diamonds to their source, which is, of course, Blofeld, who plans to build a reflective laser satellite with them to take over the world. Oh hey, remember when Bond got his vengeance earlier? Well, that cooled him off some, since he's taking all this pretty lightly now. I would have expected all of those emotions to come rushing back, but Bond is over his pain and has moved on to his next girl already.

Diamonds are Forever is by far the campiest James Bond movie yet. It is loaded with dumb gags that betray the clever humor of the series' best entries. Among the worst is a scene where, on the run from some henchmen in Nevada, Bond storms onto the set of a moon mission being faked, steals the moon rover and takes off in it. Come on, guys! The space program was real just two movies ago, when you had Blofeld stealing rocket ships.

This movie is also the origin of the scene where Bond gets caught in some sort of death trap and manages to get out of it unscathed, calmly brushing dust off of his tuxedo or something. That's my least favorite version of James Bond. I like it when Bond gets messed up a little, not the guy who can casually walk through a gunfight sipping a martini.

And there's more. Cake bombs. Bickering gay assassins. Blofeld dressing in drag.

I've enjoyed the first six 007 movies to varying degrees, some less than others, but Diamonds are Forever is the first one that is downright crappy. They don't even give us a proper showdown between Bond and Blofeld at the end. After avoiding Bond's grasp for six movies, the final confrontation amounts to Bond swinging him around in a crane for a while, then leaving.

I think this is it for now. I hope you enjoyed my James Bond reviews. One day I plan on continuing on with the Roger Moore series, but this one kind of killed my will to go on, at least for the time being. With a new movie coming out later this year, though, I can't imagine these reviews being gone for too long.

James Moore will be back (someday) with his review of LIVE AND LET DIE