Monday, September 20, 2010

Cornered (1945)

Exciting and well-constructed, this post-war noir tells of an Air Force pilot who, after the war, learns that his wife was executed by war criminals, and travels the globe seeking revenge. As it turns out, the mastermind of the plot is hiding out in Buenos Aires, so the stalwart, but ostensibly shell-shocked protagonist investigates the local aristocracy to find out who is hiding, or who may be, the man he's after. The idea that our lead character is confused due to his wartime trauma (in close-ups that remind one of Ted Striker in Airplane!) adds a lot of mileage to the proceedings, as the details, coincidences, and red herrings that pile up confuse and overwhelm him just as they do the viewer; it gives him a deep shade of character that distinguishes him from similarly driven, vengeful leads in the genre. The focus here, as in the Big Heat, is on revenge, not love or money, making the whole thing a very heated endeavor; I prefer the relentless, uncompromising pace here to the sprawling, patchwork structure of Casablanca, which shares similarities with this film. The side characters are an eclectic and interesting noir line-up, and provide ample support and intrigue throughout. The style is very expressionistic and bleak, implying a sort of post-war cynicism that gives the film haunting, unsettling overtones.

Highly Recommended to fans of revenge thrillers or noir. This is a near-forgotten gem that deserves more acclaim than many of the alleged classics of the genre I have encountered.

Panic (2000)

Low-key hitman mid-life crisis film about an assassin who tenuously begins relationships with therapy and a young, volatile bisexual. This is not a huge budget film, but the actors make the dialogue and relationships sing; William H. Macy and Donald Sutherland, as the hitman and his gangster father, have a pitch-perfect dynamic, and the better parts of the film are concerned with their strained relationship, and Macy's repressed conscience. The therapy sessions, with John Ritter as the befuddled shrink, are not as provocative as similar setups in Grosse Point Blank or The Sopranos, but they have an effortless charm due to Macy's deadpan delivery and Ritter's constant discomfort toward his role as a sort-of accomplice to murder. Macy's home life, with Tracy Ullman as his wife and their grade school son, is well-presented as average, but warm, and several scenes with Macy relating to his son at his bedside achieve a surprising amount of poignance. However, the central love story, with a tick-filled, neurotic performance by Neve Campbell as a flighty 23-year old who is attracted to Macy, falls flat, is devoid of logic or chemistry, and does not have the maturity and oddball tone of the rest of the film; their banter is the kind of juvenile narcissism the rest of the dialogue would acknowledge only in jest. Luckily, the film is not as dependent on the romance angle as I worried it might have been, and the other relationships in the film are well-defined and presented enough that they balance out the missteps with Campbell's character.

Recommended for fans of Macy, Sutherland, or of similar hitman dramedies like Jerry & Tom or Analyze This. I remember this one premiering on cable (Cinemax I think) back in the day; while I see how this got swept under the rug in lieu of Analyze This and The Sopranos, it is breezy, yet distinctive enough to be worth seeking out.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jane Eyre (1944)

Literary, but well-staged adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's classic novel about an abused, but subservient girl who searches for comfort and love in 1840's england. The sprawling narrative opens with Jane as a young girl in the house of her aunt, who abuses her in favor of her own gluttonous, pampered son. Hoping for a change, she is eventually transferred to a institution for young girls, where she becomes friends with Helen, played by a young Elizabeth Taylor. However, they are regularly abused, and, following a night of punishment in the rain, Helen dies of pneumonia, leaving Jane alone and miserable once more. She grows up, and finds employment as a governess for the rich, blustery, and secretive Mr. Rochester, and finds a joy in life through Rochester's little girl, Adele. Then Jane and Rochester find love, despite their difference in class, background, etc. This is a handsome production, with grand sets and production design to complement the classic nature of the novel, but the plotline is too fractured and disconnected to make for a satisfying narrative throughline; we are given much insight as to what has happened to Jane over the course of her life, but it mostly serves as backstory to explain Jane's resistance toward comfort with Rochester and his household. Once the film gets Jane to Rochester's mansion, and Orson Welles finally makes his top-billed appearance as Mr. Rochester, the pace picks up, and the fairly traditional love story between the two is allowed to take full focus. While there is not very much, even in this stretch of the story, that is particularly fresh or enlightening to those who haven't read Bronte's novel, the performances (particularly by Welles...I know, shocker) and the grandiose presentation strike a consistent chord until the lukewarm, but thoroughly satisfactory ending. The first 45 minutes or so present a strong backstory for the titular character, but they bring the films pace to a snail's crawl in service of fidelity to the source material; aside from Taylor's shockingly mature presence, even at this young age, there is little here that is engaging beyond a technical level.

Slightly Recommended for fans of the novel or similarly handsome, grand Victorian-era romances. The performances and production were what kept my attention here, but I could say the same thing about Citizen Kane, a film that's three years younger, yet trumps this in every way possible.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Valley Girl (1983)

Energetic, breezy '80s teen romance about two L.A. high schoolers, one a Hollywood rebel, the other a prospective prom queen from the San Fernando Valley, who fall in love despite their social backgrounds. The focus is on the titular valley girl, Julie (Deborah Foreman), as she and her friends giggle, dance, and shop their way through life in their insular, and totally super popular, clique. She decides she's sick of her "hunk" boyfriend, and dumps him, leaving room for Nicolas Cage's wild Randy to instantly fall in love with her at a party. They tiptoe around their mutual attraction for a little bit, before beginning a tenuous, but warm and passionate romance. They both have clear, distinct personalities outside of their relationship, but when they are together, they are rendered shy, open, and endearing; it is in these simple, innocent, nearly-wordless passages between them that the film truly clicks. They are helped by an ever-present soundtrack filled with early-'80s New Wave that, alongside the films heavy visual aesthetic of neons and flashing lights, gives the film a distinctive flavor despite its tired Romeo and Juliet structure. Another huge benefit of the film is the cast. While Deborah Foreman is not the most interesting or mature lead (to her credit, the role certainly has something to do with that), the rest of the players are pitch-perfect, and create a complete portrait of the environment of the film. Nicolas Cage is not as manic here as one would expect, and, with unglamorous facial features long-since remedied by surgery, is a sympathetic and likable romantic lead. Frederic Forrest, as Julie's former-hippie father, is absolutely hilarious, and unconventional; neither a louse nor a blowhard, he questions his own bizarre parenting methods while consistently making sure that his little girl is as happy as a bird, despite his misgivings. Elizabeth Daily and Michael Bowen are both memorable as one of Julie's ditzy friends and her brutish ex, respectively, who have a terrific, realistic scene together where they drunkenly and absent-mindedly cavort at a party. And the rest of the film is peppered with small roles that are given enough attention and character that they are just as memorable as the central love story.

Highly Recommended for fans of '80s teen movies or girly films a la Clueless (although this is infinitely more mature and endearing). This is a film that is confident, and insightful, in its presentation of young love, and has many qualities that make it one of the truly enjoyable teen movies of the era.

Desperate (1947)

Decent, fun noir about a truck heist gone wrong that renders the innocent driver a runaway patsy. The driver is a spitting image of innocence, and does everything he can to stop a group of gangsters from hijacking the cargo of his truck once he is aware of the heist. The police get involved, sending one of them to jail, who just so happens to be the brother of the leader of this mob. He's played by Raymond Burr, as a big Burry badass who uses his chubby cheeks and eyes to stare down people in a very Paul Sorvino kinda way; his heavy is one of the highlights of the film. Burr demands that the driver turn himself in for all of the crimes his brother's accused of, but he manages to escape and leave town with his wife. He gets framed for the robbery, and spends the rest of the film on the run with the police and Burr tracking him down. The dialogue, lighting, and costuming are done in a very strong, high-noir style; the dialogue in particular is a delight, with plenty of great gangster witticisms scattered throughout. But the protagonist, a goody two-shoes who never once is even moderately swayed by temptation, is not a typical noir lead. He is motivated primarily out of concern for his wife and a desire for justice, but ends up being just as scared and desperate (*gasp*!) as a common criminal due to unfortunate circumstances. His unflappable good nature makes him a relatively uninteresting protagonist, but there is plenty of humor in just how unbelievably Boy Scouty he manages to act.

Recommended for noir buffs. This isn't one of the more interesting or original noirs I've ever seen, but it is a strong entry in the genre, and has a lively, evocative style.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mistress (1992)

Funny, pointed satire of Hollywood involving the efforts of two huckster screenwriters and a producer to make a film that, as it turns out, is just an excuse for the money-men to put their mistresses on camera. Robert Wuhl is the writer of a years-old melodrama revolving around the suicide of an artist unwilling to compromise (gotta love the foreshadowing) who gets a call from desperate producer Martin Landau and his young spec screenwriter saying that they believe they can get financing for the picture. The rest of the film involves Wuhl and Co. pitching the script to various financiers, who each have their own nitpicks with the script, with the commonality that they all want their girlfriends to appear in the picture in a sizable role. Every compromise Wuhl makes to his beloved script is another compromise of his integrity; this film is noteworthy for making the writer, normally portrayed as a beleaguered, passionate artist or a hack, into a confused, aimless narcissist tired of defending a script that only he loves in lieu of making a compromised, but released picture. The directorial style is fairly barebones, letting the play-like dialogue and monologues take full focus, which works here only because of the acting talent involved; the prospective money-men include Robert DeNiro, Danny Aiello, and Eli Wallach, all of whom kill their respective performances, particularly DeNiro's Hollywood hotshot. Wuhl, and, especially, Landau, are both terrifically desperate and pathetic, as is Jean Smart as Aiello's aging stewardess mistress and Sheryl Lee Ralph as the proposed lead actress for the film. The script, co-written by Under Siege and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death scribe J.F. Lawton, is not quite as nihilistic as similar showbiz comedies The Player or Swimming With Sharks, but it definitely portrays Hollywood as a soulless vacuum where all integrity must be checked at the door for any sort of tangible, monetary success.

Recommended for fans of Hollywood-centric comedies a la The Player or The Last Shot, or the stellar cast. I wasn't expecting much of a film with DeNiro, Aiello, and Landau from '92 that I had never heard of, but this one is indeed worth seeking out if the setup tickles your fancy.

Scarface (1932)

The Howard Hawks-directed, Howard Hughes-produced precursor to the '83 Depalma-Stone-Pacino remake about a gangster rising up in the contraband distribution rackets, this time selling Prohibition-era hooch. Allegedly based on Al Capone, whose cut-up face inspired the title, Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte as a crude, morally indifferent, ambitious tough guy whose balls of steel are actually a form of self-destruction; he is less of an inebriated slave to his impulses as Pacino was, and more of a hollow, aimless shell of a man who seeks to prove himself through terror and violence, rather than respect. The incestuous relationship with the sister is here, as well as the attraction to the boss' lady (who, surprisingly, comes off as more appealing and less plain stuffy and hard-to-get as Pfeiffer). Steven Bauer's Manolo is George Raft's Guino, and his, along with Muni, is the strongest performance in the film; constantly flipping his coin and silently backing up Camonte, Guino proves to be more like a real tough-guy, the spitting image of unflappable, unreactionary cool. The pace of the film is where it surprised me the most; about half the running time of its epic remake, this picture is relentless, opening up with Camonte doing his first hit and continuing with almost non-stop, shocking (even for today) violence, punctuated by scenes of Muni's snakey, amoral gangster usurping his superiors. The ending, while a cliche, is a prime example of noir iconography, and is expertly (and in very modern fashion) performed by Muni.

Highly Recommended to fans of noir, '30s gangster pictures, or, of course, Pacino's Scarface. I have not seen any of Hughes' other productions, but of Hawk's work, I have seen Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep, both more popular and heralded films than Scarface, and both more bloated and self-satisfied pictures; the level of slime here along with a general trailblazing violent energy distinguish, and contemporize, this film far more than those more famous works.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Fourth Kind (2009)

Terrifically haunting thriller that combines archive-style footage with reenacted material to tell the story of an Alaskan town with a high amount of missing people. Milla Jovovich, Will Patton, and especially Elias Koteas are very effective in their respective roles, and the film maintains an extremely tense tone throughout. Ruining any more would compromise the slow, horrific pace of the film.

Highly Recommended for fans of intelligent, tense horror films.

Machete (2010)

Appropriately crazy and over-the-top feature-length adaptation of the fake trailer (that's gotta be a first) revolving around a racist-killin' MexiCAN who gets framed, and, naturally, must seek revenge. The style of this Robert Rodriguez (co-written, co-produced, and co-directed) flick is strongly evocative of B-grade '90s action pictures, and not in the most obvious, corny ways; Rodriguez wants this to be able to play as a straight, gung-ho, fuck yeah Mexican action picture as well as a subversive nod to the conventions of the genre. The action is absurd, but horrifically comic, and it pleases the audience as well; the audience I saw it with hooted and hollered throughout. The cast is, mostly, a delight: aside from the badass Danny Trejo as the titular Machete, you have a mix of modern day eye candy (Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, and Lindsay Lohan) and older, '80s era stars (Jeff Fahey, Robert DeNiro, Don Johnson, and Steven Seagal) hamming it up and having a blast. Unfortunately, much of the script revolves around Alba's boring-sauce INS agent, and her scenes drag down the momentum of the film, but the rest of the cast (save for Lohan) picks up her pace, especially Seagal, who makes his first major villain turn a fresh, original turn from him (and it shows he has a sense of humor, which is nice). The stronger emphasis on humor here is what differentiates this from the recent action-flick homage, The Expendables, and it's also what makes this film a more memorable experience altogether.

Highly Recommended for fans of high action and/or the more harder-edged output of Robert Rodruiguez (i.e. Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn). The best thing I can say about this movie is that every shot that I remember from the trailer ended up the film, and I definitely didn't think that shit was possible; I once again think to myself that Rodriguez may be one of the smartest men in show-business right now.