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Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday's Top 5... Movies Set in New Orleans

#5: The Cincinnati Kid

A Depression era poker drama starring Steven McQueen, and a transitional film in the career of director Norman Jewison, who helmed several light comedies prior to this one and then afterwards made such classics as The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming and In the Heat of the Night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: David O. Russell
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

Hollywood doesn't always have a great track record when it comes to depicting mental illness, often resorting to playing it as a "quirk" to be mined for comedy, or as something completely dark and debilitating, prime material for high drama. Rarely is mental illness depicted with any real degree of complexity and nuance - there's "crazy" and there's "movie crazy" and the latter tends to play better cinematically - and though Silver Linings Playbook is a comedy, it takes its subject matter very seriously. It offers a deft mix of comedy and drama, of plot-based and character-based story, and is highly entertaining.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: The Sessions (2012)

* * 1/2

Director: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt

No one film can have universal appeal, so it's only natural that every once in a while there will be a film that seemingly everyone else loves but that does nothing for you. For me, that film is The Sessions, a well-meaning and well acted film that just ended up falling flat for me. While the film certainly has many excellent qualities, I didn't feel that they quite held together - or, to be more specific, that the fine first two acts were completely let down by the third.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Library Project: November 17 - 24

It was a Maltese Falcon kind of week as I continued my way through my DVD collection. Here's what I watched:

November 19: Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - the epic to end all epics. Even on the small screen, David Lean's biopic of T.E. Lawrence is majestic in scope and execution and Peter O'Toole has never been better than he is here as the film's complicated, contradictory hero.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Friday's Top 5... Unfilmable Books

#5: One Hundred Years of Solitude

The sheer scope of this one would make it nearly impossible to adapt to the screen - or, at the very least, to adapt well. Following seven generations of one family, the story is rooted in the complex history of its many characters, which means you couldn't easily remove any of them and still have a story that makes sense and has an emotional impact.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: The Queen of Versailles (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lauren Greenfield

Timing is everything and the bad timing of David and Jackie Siegel, who decided to build a replica of Versailles in their home state of Florida only to watch the real estate bubble burst before it could be completed, turned out to be the good timing of filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, who originally set out to document the building of what would have been the largest single family dwelling in the United States and ended up with a far richer and more relevant story about the ethos that fed the economic collapse. That is the story of The Queen of Versailles, which may just as well have been titled "Hubris: The Movie." It would be easy for a film like this to become a celebration of schadenfreude, but instead it is a surprisingly balanced and complex portrait of a long, hard fall from the heights of excess. It's pushing it to say that you end up feeling bad for the Siegels - but you do sometimes come close.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Lincoln (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field

A film like Lincoln inevitably ends up being caught in a Catch-22. On the one hand, a story this important and compelling must be told. On the other, it's impossible to tell it without it having that aura of the "Important Story," which makes it feel like the kind of movie you see because it's "good for you," the cinematic equivalent of brussel sprouts. Lincoln is an "Important Story" - it just is, there's no fighting that - but it is told with a minimum of period piece fussiness and it takes material that might otherwise be dry and makes it engaging and even entertaining. Lincoln is a movie that is good for you, but it is also a good movie.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Library Project: November 10 - 16

It was a particularly excellent week of DVD watching, if I say so myself. Here's what I watched:

November 11: Julia (2008) - Tilda Swinton delivers one of her best performances to date as a volatile alcoholic who gets involved in a kidnapping and then finds herself more and more in over her head and desperate. A great thriller and amazing performance.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review: Knife in the Water (1962)

* * * *

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Zygmunt Malanowicz, Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka

You would think that a premise as simple as this could only be really effective once. Yet, I've seen three films that center on two men and a woman on a boat that range from good to excellent (to wit: this film, Purple Noon and Dead Calm), so obviously the closed and isolated location offers a wealth of possibilities. Knife in the Water, the feature debut of Roman Polanski, isn't really a thriller like either of the other two films, but it's a tense character film that often plays like one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

* * *

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni

"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll be paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed." So reads the ad, and such is the premise, of Colin Trevorrow's comedy/drama Safety Not Guaranteed. Though it could easily have played as a broad comedy, the film is instead a surprisingly touching character study about loneliness and regret. And time travel, sort of.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Library Project: November 3 - 9

All in all, a pretty good week for DVD watching, with genuine quality mixed in with a bit of frivolity. Here's what I watched this week:

November 3: Heathers (1988) - A cult classic which, to be honest, has always left me just a little bit cold. Still, it's a darkly funny film and one of the better movies about teenagers ever made.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Friday's Top 5... Performances as Real-Life Presidents

#5: Dan Hedaya as Richard Nixon in Dick

Yeah, okay, in the comedy Dick Dan Hedaya isn't so much playing Richard Nixon as he is the "idea" of Richard Nixon, but his performance is so hilarious it doesn't matter.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

* * * *

Director: Federico Fellini
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale

What's left to say about a film as beloved and influential as Federico Fellini's 8 1/2? Not much, I fear. I can merely affirm its dreamy, sublime greatness. It isn't my favourite Fellini film - that honor goes to La Dolce Vita which, in addition to being a great movie, was the first Fellini film I ever saw and so has a special place in my heart - but it is a great and very entertaining movie. It's easy to see why it influenced so many subsequent films, some of them great in their own right, some of them... not so much.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: Flight (2012)

* * *

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle

Flight is a film that places itself firmly in a moral gray area. On the one hand, its protagonist, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is right when he says that he was given a broken plane and that, inebriated or not, no other pilot could have landed it as safely as he did (the question of whether even he would have been bold enough to try what he does had he not been drunk and on drugs remains unspoken). On the other hand, there's really no excuse for being drunk on the job, especially if you're a pilot. Though the film is advertised as a disaster and aftermath drama, it's actually a cerebral addiction drama in which its protagonist tries again and again to justify his actions, until finally getting to the point where he no longer can. It's a film that often descends into inelegant manipulation, but that ultimately succeeds in spite of itself and on the strength of its extraordinary cast.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Library Project: October 27 - November 2

My DVD viewing last week wasn't much for quantity, but quality is another matter. Here's what I watched as I continue to work my way through my DVD library:

October 27: Gentleman's Agreement (1947) - A well-meaning drama about bigotry, but one that plays it a little too safe and falls a bit flat. Still, it did manage to win a Best Picture Oscar - which frankly says more about AMPAS than it does about the film itself. Nevertheless, Gregory Peck is always worth watching and is in fine form here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday's Top 5... Denzel Washington Performances

#5: Philadelphia

Tom Hanks won the Oscar, but Washington's performance is just as vital to Philadelphia. Playing a homophobic lawyer who takes on a wrongful dismissal case for the money, but slowly comes to see his AIDS striken client as a human being, Washington expertly guides his character through what could be a rote transformation, and makes it something deeper and more profound.