Friday, September 22, 2017

Advice and Dissent

I am getting kind of tired of films or TV shows being called topical, timely or prescient.Witness, for example, "The Handmaid's Tale" - the excellent Sci-Fi-ish dystopian series on Amazon. It is 'eerily prescient' if you are anti-Trump, and not, if you are not. And a lot of people are not.

So, while my way in to Advise and Consent would be to say, watching it I am reminded of the last decade or so of American politics, I refuse to call it timely, or eerily prescient. Well, it can't be because it was made a long time ago. What this outstanding Otto Preminger helmed political thriller is, is, well, outstanding.

Staring a virtual laundry list of A and B list American (and non American) actors -- which seems to be what Preminger could command -- the long-ish film concerns the confirmation hearings for a Secretary of State candidate (played with usual deft assurance by Henry Fonda), and attempts by both sides to play the politics in order to effect the outcome they desire. The screenplay by Wendell Mayes, based on a popular novel by Alan Drury, takes what could be a tiresome and overly complicated exercise and focuses on the people involved, not the politics. That, I think, is the starting point for why Advise and Consent is such and excellent genre film, along the lines of the under-appreciated "State of Play", the more thriller-ish "All the President's Men" and the outstanding, and of-a-kind Rod Lurie film "The Contender".

With so many cast members, it might be sufficient to just say everyone is excellent. Which they are. Standout performances from Fonda, Gene Tierney, and many others make this a master class of ensemble acting. But, as often happens in these types of films, the late, great Charles Laughton nearly steals the show as a cantankerous, crafty Senator from the South who clearly does not want Fonda's candidate -- from the opposing Party, natch - to be confirmed. When I watch Laughton perform, as I have often recently, I am reminded of how effortless his acting was. There is a long history of British Actors doing American parts and vice-versa (recent examples are plentiful) but seeing the same man who played English kings so expertly nail a the mannerisms, accent and general comportment of a mid-century Southern politico is a great pleasure.

The plot is probably not that important, as it primarily serves as a vehicle for the actors and actresses. The primary question is not, will Fonda's Secretary of State candidate be confirmed, but how low will both parties go to achieve their ends, and watching that evolve is one of the many pleasures of Advise and Consent. The location photography in Washington is remarkable, especially considering many of the scenes were shot in actual Senate chambers and offices. Perhaps that is (or was, then) more common than I am aware, but the verisimilitude lent is striking.

If you like political thrillers that don't lean Left or Right, just hew excellent, check this one out. On Amazon Prime the print and transfer to SD are excellent. The video quality is "DVD like" but on a good quality TV with a good sound system it is still a very satisfying experience.

Enjoy.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Ed Jagels should have resigned a long, long time ago,



Wow. Just wow. As others have commented, a compelling portrait of a monumental Miscarriage of Justice. Rabid Kern County. CA prosecutor Ed Jagels makes his career on convicting ordinary middle class white people (yes, I said it) of child molestation on trumped-up and poorly investigated charges. What is more amazing than the fact that good people spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit is the fact that the a-hole at the top -- Ed Jagels - not only never was forced to resign, but was actually re-elected several times. Even well after the first of the convictions were overturned, and the children who had been forced to testify falsely that their OWN PARENTS molested them recanted their testimony in court. Every one of them. The film, exec produced and narrated by Sean Pean sensitively and powerfully focuses on the true victims of this travesty, and, although Jagels made me quite mad the film rightly did not spend much time on the topic of what a jerk he is. This is about the deep effect this unforgivable injustice played in the lives of the parents, and the children forced to lie. I mean, what could be worse than to be brow-beaten into lying and saying that the most important person in your life -- your mom, or dad -- molested you?
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Is the ending really all that mysterious?,


I am always wary of "cult classics". They can typically be amazing or amazingly bad.

I think Geoff Murphy's highly personal take on End of Days (precipitated by the Evil Corporation) is somewhere in between, more on the Amazing side, but maybe not a masterpiece as some have proclaimed it. Bruno Lawrence plays a scientist/researcher who awakens one morning to find that, apparently, he is the only one left on Earth, due to the catastrophic failure of an Energy Project he was working on. Or, is it something else? Speculation about the meaning of the The End of the film -- which has run rampant, apparently -- seems to tie together with the meaning of the Beginning of the film. It all relates to something called "The Effect" which has possibly wiped out the entire population of the Earth, except for Lawrence's character. The rest is worthy of saving for those that haven't seen this nifty Apocalyptic Sci Fi drama. In any case, I write spoiler-free reviews. What I will say is that Lawrence is wonderful in a role that requires an Actor's solo acting chops to be on display, as they were (in spades) for Will Smith in I am Legend. Great stuff.

Monday, February 13, 2017

I hate comparing the Book to the Movie...

...but, on this one I will relax my proscription. The book was way better than the movie.

Now, what I mean by that is that the book succeeded, as a book much better than the movie succeeded as a movie. That is really the only way to compare these types of "apples" and "oranges". I don't know what it is about Dan Brown, but none of the adaptations of his books has been very good - in fact, I think they have declined steadily until we get this mess.

Basic plot is that Robert Langdon wakes up in Florence, Italy, the victim of an apparent gunshot which grazed his skull. If you know Brown, then you know what evolves from there is an Intellecto-cutural scavenger hunt that masquerades as a travel log of Italy and, well, let's face it a six hundred page (or two hours plus) demonstration of how fricking much more about any of these topics Brown knows than us. He is, as someone once called it, a super smarty pants, and boy does he show it.

The problem with Ron Howard's film is that it fails, almost from the beginning to track Brown's relatively intricate plotting and character development, and just assumes that steadicam shots of havoc and mayhem in beautiful Italian locales will suffice.

Well, they don't.

And nearly no one in this film is well cast, including, I am sorry to say Tom Hanks. While he is a good Langford, he is not a good badly written Langford, and Felicity Jones never sinks her teeth into the robust material supporting her very interesting character. Or, again, maybe she is just suffering from a sub-par script form the usually dependable David Koepp. And Omar Sy as the possibly double-dealing WHO scientist-cum-agent-cum-well whatever? The only thing interesting about Sy's character is that he briefly swears in French, and Jones briefly responds, showing a tiny bit of the depth of her otherwise impenetrable character.

Sheesh...

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Book of Denzel


I must admit two things about this outstanding Post-apocalypse Sci-Fi thriller from the Hughes Brothers: 1) I had seen it before I most recently re-watched, and 2) I had it in my Amazon Watchlist for like four years. Wow.

What is not to like? The film is a master class in cinema craftsmanship from the top to the bottom. Of course we know the Hughes Bros. can cook, given the first-rate From Hell with Johnny Depp, and other entries. But they really rise to the occasion here. I watched The Book of Eli and scratched my head thinking, 'this must have come from a graphic novel or something.' But no, it is an original screenplay, albeit one rich in apocalyptic back-story (implied more than stated), dialogue and action.

The basic setup is this: Denzel Washington plays Eli, a thoroughly put-together, and mysterious nomad moving through the bleak landscape of a post-war America. He seems to be going somewhere -- "West" he cryptically says, when asked -- and very clearly will not be stopped. The arc of the action is minimalism personified. Eli is going West, and Bad Guys are going to try to stop him. And Fail. That is really all you need to know, except that he is carrying a Book that turns out to be tremendously important.

Eli is something of a Force Majeur who, like the Walking Tall character, or David Carradine's TV Kung Fu character, Cane, is seemingly disadvantaged until very Bad Men out of Central Casting try to maim and/or kill him. That of course is a big mistake. and once we see this happen in the first scene we are in on the joke. Gary Oldman is splendid as the evil patriarch of a generic, dried up Western town and of course as bad, and powerful as Oldman's character is, he is no match for Eli. Most of the second reel concerns Eli's captivity in said town and eventual escape with the town virgin/prostitute, played by American Dream's Mila Kunis.

Two things make The Book of Eli something of an art house masterpiece. First, it succeeds on its technical merits over, and over. The Photography is absolutely splendid. I defy to you tell, in the first couple of minutes whether the film is shot in Black & White or Color, the filter and/or color processing is so unique. The screenplay is first rate, and the marvelous cast -- including the always wonderful Tom Waits -- delivers the goods. Finally, seeing The Book of Eli for the second time I got a chance to notice Atticus Ross's astonishing Score. Watch the last five minutes of The Book of Eli, a second time, and listen to one of the most achingly beautiful film scores in recent memory. Especially when matched with the significance of the Big Reveal at the end.

But the strongest kudos, besides the Hughes Bros. as co-helmers are reserved for Denzel. Can we just agree, people, that Denzel is not only the greatest American actor of his generation, but one of the top two or three greatest American actors of all time? He has done so many great films, and with two Oscars has been rightly recognized for Glory and Training Day. Most people don't even mention The Book of Eli when they are talking about great Denzel roles, but I would argue that this may be his very finest.

Why? Like Matthew McConaughey showed in Killer Joe, Denzel does menace better than almost anyone. Menace isn't being big and strong and scary, but showing an inner calm and confidence -- in the service of some divine motive -- in the face of over-whelming odds. Denzel did Menace exceptionally well in Tony Scott's under-appreciated Man on Fire, but his character was damaged goods - you sympathized with him but understood that he probably would not survive the third reel (sorry for the Spoiler). Here, Menace comes in the form of Righteousness. Eli needs to fulfill his mission, that mission is Divine and essential to the survival of Humanity, and if you get in his way you will probably die. Period. No offense.

To wrap up, The Book of Eli is a technically superior film, anchored by Denzel Washington's perhaps best, and most under-appreciated role. The supporting cast is top-shelf, including an uncredited and of course delightful Malcom MacDowell in the closing scene. If you do watch Eli, please make sure to watch in Hi Def on a good quality screen with good sound. Believe me, it is worth it.

Happy Doomsday.
















Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My Cousin Rebecca


I realize that, as I said in one of my first posts on this Blog, that I jump around a lot. From my last post's take on a current Sci Fi oddity, The Lobster to this post on a 1952 Gothic/Noir classic is a vast jump. Or is it? The Lobster takes place in a non-specific region that looks remarkably like the countryside surrounding Belfast, and My Cousin Rachel in Cornwall. See, there is a logic to this that can be sussed out, if one is just patient.

Full disclosure, I love love love Hitchcock's masterpiece Rebecca. I love the Daphne DuMaurier penned story, the sterling cast, and even the back story about how Joan Fontaine was so terrified of being chosen for what was a top, top role that she almost wet herself. But mostly I love Hitch's masterly reading of the Gothic Noir. So, I really wanted to see "that other Rebecca" aka My Cousin Rachel.

Well, the comparison might fail immediately with the relatively unkown Henry Koster -- unknown to me at least, although he did direct the delightful Harvey and some other classics. But not every film can be directed by Hitch, nor should it. Cousin has a similarly excellent (and, by some accounts, even more popular) DuMaurier novel as its source material. Check. It has two excellent actors in the leads: a young Richard Burton in his first "American" film and the glorious Olivia DeHavilland, one of the finest, if not the finest American actress of her generation. Check. And, it has a backstory.

What is the backstory? Among other things, Burton and DeHavilland did not get along at all well during filming. What else is new - I don't know much about how easy or hard to work with DeHavilland was (except I have read that she was a true professional) but we all know that Burton was notoriously difficult. In any case, what is really mind blowing is that, given they didn't like one another, these two turned in performances that were truly first rate. In some scenes they even had to pretend they were in love. Or that one was in love with the other (no spoilers, as always with my reviews).

Perhaps because of this, or in spite of it Burton and DeHavilland are just perfect. He as an erstwhile heir to a lonely Cornish manor and she the possibly scheming possible gold-digger (again, not spoilers) who may or may not have murdered her husband.  Rachel features a somewhat less complicated set of side-plots than Rebecca, so the supporting cast, while wonderful has much less to do. In Rebecca, George Sanders nearly steals the show as a local Lothario trying to seduce the eponymous heroine; in Rachel that role seems taken by the appropriately dastardly George Dolenz as Guido Rainaldi.

In a master-stroke of production design, a film that was nearly entirely shot in Century City (at the famous 20th Century Fox sound stage, which is still there) looks very much like it was shot at a lonely manor house in the Cornish coast. And, similarly with the home and surrounding countryside in Rebecca, the scene and setting nearly become another character in the narrative. I believe that is a trademark of DuMaurier, but I have not read her novels so I wouldn't know.

What I do know is that this "other Rebecca" more than holds its own, due to great source material and sparkling lead performances. By the way, I watched this on Amazon Prime, which has a great transfer of an excellent print - in glorious HD. If you like your gothic with a noirish cinematic twist you will love this film.

Enjoy.












Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Unbearable Slightness of (Being) Alone


I had been wanting to watch this remarkable Essay on what-it-means-to-be-alone-as-a-Human ever since I read Manohla Dargis' review in the Times. I finally got to see it recently, and went with my wife and two young men who were staying as guests in our house.

Sufficed to say, "The Lobster" is not for everyone, maybe even not for anyone. Although the Yorgos Lanthimos-helmed "sci fi" piece is by turns funny, tragic, head-scratching and remarkably well acted, it is in the end, almost unremittingly depressing. I am not sure whether that is more of a statement on the current state of humanity, or just the world view that the film is seeking to present.

In short, Colin Farrell plays the eponymous Lobster (the process of learning what that means is one of the joys, or horrors of the film depending on your personal reaction) a recently divorced man living in a non-specific City that looks remarkably like Belfast. Being newly single, the Lobster is forced to check in to The Hotel, where he will have a limited amount of time to find a new mate. If he does not, well, you will find out if you watch the film.

The poster, and billing would seem to imply that the amazing Rachel Weisz is Farrell's co-star throughout the film, but Weisz only appears in the late second act, and their very strange, and very sad romance starts late enough that "The Lobster" almost seems like two films. But is is one, seamlessly told and emotionally wrenching, as many critics have said. The Lobster tries very hard, but fails to find a mate, and circumvents the normal end game by meeting up with Weisz and her band of not so merry folk.

In addition to one of Farrell's best turns as an Actor, and Weisz's always great work, the stellar supporting cast just makes the dreary subject matter and potential outcome even more poignant. And, if it is possible to say, "The Lobster" has one of the most ambiguous endings since, well Chris Nolan's "Inception".

This is great stuff, folks, But not for the faint of heart.