Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What is it about Dana Andrews?

So, I still have not figured out how to wrap text around an image I insert in my Blog posting - like I somehow did successfully for the post on Moon.

Anyway...this is a short note, about a small, but pretty compelling oldie - Boomerang, with the always great Dana Andrews, along with Lee J. Cobb, Jane Wyatt (Does Father really know best?) and an uncredited Karl Malden.

This well crafted true crime thriller is based on a true story, and really the relationship between the true story - as well as the docu-drama style of story telling that the director (Elia Kazan, natch) utlizes - and the film would be worth exploring. But short notes don't allow that. IMDB calls this dandy "chilling", and I would have to agree.

Strangely, Amazon (where I of course found Boomerang) categorizes it is Film Noir, among other things. Well, yes, based on the time-frame it was made, the fact that it is B&W...but it isn't really a thriller or mystery. Really this is a court-room drama par excellence, perfectly played by Dana Andrews. Perhaps the IMDB editors got this confused with Laura -- perhaps Andrews' finest role -- which is really the quintessential American noir.

The justice-denied, and then justice regained story is always a good one, and has the feel of an 18th Century French novel. Get thee to Amazon Prime. And don't worry, that really is the late, great Karl Malden as the hard-nosed detective. The crime is that apparently he didn't have enough juice to get his name in the credits.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Pacino and DeNiro? Yeah, Right...

I have recently been on a Cold War era thrillers kick. I go on these...kicks, I mean. I also recently went on a 1970s Hunk Actor in a Paranoid Thriller kick, and watched Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and All The President's Men in about a week's time. It is only slightly ironic that the latter is almost entirely a work of non-fiction - the scariest political thriller of the 1970s was based on one of the scariest actual political disasters of all time.

So, my Cold War era thrillers kick. Early cold war, not late, to clarify. I all of a sudden, one day got a hankering to see Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe. I watched the first and third, and will soon re-watch Kubrick's 'black humor' masterpiece. Although Failsafe - starring Henry Fonda as our Commander-in-Chief - is truly riveting, this oft-overlooked chiller with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster is a real potboiler. It is nearly impossible to spoil the plot, because the 'secret' - that a group of militarists and politicians are plotting a coup d'etat to overthrow the U.S. Government -- is laid bare in the first reel. The rest, is, as the saying goes, 'cutting to the chase'.

And what a chase it is. Let me see, what could be more thrilling than a multi-layered, ingenious plan to replace the President with the Speaker of the House, lead by a group of Hawks who believe negotiating with the Ruskies is, er, what would be the right phrase, "namby pamby"? The ways in which the coup plotters use the very protocols intended to ensure the security of our country to create a web of inter-connected events like the mechanism of a finely made watch clicking together is something to behold, and this cast of crazies is lead by the original He Man himself, Burt Lancaster. I keep thinking Lancaster's General is going to pull his uniform off and reveal Captain America underneath.

Set as counter-point to Lancaster's buttoned-up G.I. Joe is Kirk Douglas, who is outstanding as one of Lancaster's staffers - literally his attache (sometimes seeming like an attache case, he is so obsequious). It is Douglas' character who accidentally uncovers said plot, pieces it together, and must make a compelling case to a hard-to-convince president (played to perfection by Frederic March) and the rag tag coterie of staff members that he thinks he can trust. Add in the always great Martin Balsam and you have a recipe for political thriller heaven.

Why was I not surprised to be reminded that late, great John Frankenheimer helmed this gem? Oh he of Manchurian Candidate fame - the guy practically invented the political/cold war thriller. And let's think for a minute about the qualities that SDiM has in common with perhaps my favorite Black and White spine-tingler starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sintra - well, the only one that fits that category. It starts - as Manchurian does - with a great story and script, and adds some damn fine actors. We've covered this ground already, but to my mind Douglas and Lancaster were two of their generation's most under-appreciated macho men (Tom Cruise, anyone?) and made many fine films in which their acting chops were on display. Think Ace in the Hole with Douglas, and The Swimmer with Lancaster, if you want to see them individually at their best.

Seeing these two on the screen reminds me of the long awaited re-pairing of DeNiro and Pacino - which at times has been great (think Heat) and at others, not so much (think Righteous Kill). It must have seemed as exciting to put these two titans together, and perhaps the sliver screen might not have seemed big enough to hold them both, but under Frankenheimer's sure hand the results are splendid. Cinemetography suits the tense nature of the thriller, using black and white to provide stark images of Pentagon war rooms and white house offices, and music and editing are also superb, as in other great Frankeheimer entries.

If you want to relive, or live through for the first time, real cold war era tension, get thee to Amazon Prime, where you will find an excellent transfer, available in full 1080p HD. You will not be sorry.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Moon Unit...Two?

Now you know I am completely "dans la lune" as the French might say. I've gone from serious documentary, to bigbudget sci fi...to indie sci fi?

Perhaps there has always been an "indie" sci fi genre, or at least a non-mainstream one. Think Solaris - not the excellent Stephen Soderbergh 'remake' but the original Russian classic. But "Moon" with the inimitable Sam Rockwell is just great.

I saw this film about a year ago for the first time, and remember really liking it. I used to see a lot of more obscure films on first viewing by discovering them on the rental shelf at Blockbuster. Now that the last great rental chain is dying a very slow death, what will I do? Anyway, a good test for a film is if you like it as much, or even more, the second time you see it, once the novelty has worn off.

Well, this Duncan Jones entry more than passes the test. It is almost incidentally a sci-fi flick, and more a thoroughly human drama. Or is it? OK, no plot spoilers here, but sufficed to say the thorough examination of what it means to be human is really what this well written, filmed and most of all expertly acted flim is all about. And, not since Kubrick's iconic HAL 9000 have we had a computer, er, assistant so creepily voiced, this time by that Horrible Boss himself, Kevin Spacey.

Twist ending stories, whether in print or on film, depend on other qualities to elevate them artistically, since the unexpected ending (quasi plot spoiler) is rather gimmick-y. What Jones does so well in Moon is start with a great story (idea, plot and writing) and leave the rest to Rockwell. And the latter does not disappoint. Although I am now convinced that in every film featuring Sam Rockwell, he seems to be always playing himself, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Rockwell is, to use a cliche, pitch-perfect as the sole inhabitant of a lunar mining operation who just might be losing his mind. Since his character's mind is the primary frame of reference for the film's narrative that creates a marvelous complexity that doesn't leave us until the big reveal in the end - and even then is left fittingly ambiguous.

I was reminded of very 70s era sci-fi drama, Silent Running, with another great character actor, Bruce Dern. Watching Dern fence with adorable little robot-critters as he attempts to salvage what is left of Earth's bio-mass on a giant floating ship was at times humorous and at times tragic. So too with Rockwell's tete-a-tete with Spacey's thoroughly corporate computer/armature/thingy.

If you love indie, sci fi and/or Rockwell, Moon is definitely for you.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

I Love You, Amazon Prime

OK, well, this is a film blog, and not a Digital Media blog (although I have had occasion to post about that topic as well). But can I just say how in love I am with Amazon Prime? I went through one day to test how many "free" movies I had with my Prime subscription, and the answer is...well, I haven't answered the question yet. Apparently it is hundreds. Now, of course, if you have looked at online streaming sites like Netflix or Hulu you probably have come to the same conclusion I have - with regards to film, great, but no cigar. I mean Hulu has the very awesome Criterion Collection, but also has every film ever made by Casper Van Dein. And the collected later works of Rutger Hauer. Not so much...

Amazon Prime by contrast seems to have primarily decent, if not outstanding films included for the Prime subscription. I mean, they had Billy Wilder's perennially excellent "Sunset Boulevard". Need I say more?

I am a bit of a snob when it comes to the quality and format of the films I watch on my home screen, and I must comment that the print, and transfer used for this digital streaming version of Sunset was absolutely exceptional. It actually said it was in Hi-Def, which I understand for streaming services usually means 1080i, not 1080p but still, as the Aussies might say, "good on ya, Amazon".

One reason Prime is the answer to my prayers is that I had been looking for a copy of this film in my local Blockbuster, and through other means and had no luck finding a physical copy. Of course I could buy one online at Amazon, but in this case I just wanted to watch the movie, not buy it. Why did I lust for it? Because Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Eric Von Stroheim (Eric Von Stroheim?) and crew left an indelible mark on my cine-phile's counciousness when I first encountered them lo these many years past.

For some reason this film haunts me. Perhaps it is because I grew up not a couple of miles away from where it was filmed (albeit I grew up a couple of decades after it was filmed), and I think if it as a kind of 'local' story. Perhaps it is because the story is so creepy and romantic, in a postmodern way - I mean what could deconstruct romantic love more than an aging Hollywood starlet keeping a 'boy toy' in her hideway of a mansion, right on one of the most expensive streets in the world - the eponymous Sunset Boulevard. And that touches on one of the interesting aspects of this film for me - Sunset Boulevard is kind of a shadow character in the film. The fact that the street name is also the title of the film creates a sort of urban geography that circumscribes the action, as well as the moral issues the film seems to touch upon.

Having seen this film now three, or maybe four times, I am as convinced as ever that Billy Wilder was, hands-down, one of the greatest directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, or any other age; that Gloria Swanson was an excellent actress, and that Bill Holden, the lush that he was, could hold his own on the scren with just about anyone. The script, lighting, set design, everything about Sunset Boulevard is not just high quality, but exceptional.

May I be unironic for a moment and say that - unlike Norman Desmond -- Wilder's classic has aged well?

See you on Amazon Prime...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Men Don't Cry

So...my little film Blog is still finding its voice, which includes my finding the ability to post frequently enough for it to be interesting. Will I review art house fare, like "The Gatekeepers" or bubble gum summer movies like "Star Trek: Into Darkness"? Well, with his Blog post, I have answered that question as "both...for now".

Like most serious lovers of cinema I am past the useless debate about whether movies such as J.J. Abrams's latest Trek entry are 'serious' or simply manipulative and shallow. Anyone who saw last summer's "The Avengers" knows how well-crafted (including well-acted) a blockbuster super-hero CGI fest can be. And the consensus on Abrams' first entry in 2009 was fairly unanimous - he had re-booted a beloved franchise and satisfied both longtime nerds and those who just love a good action flick.

I would say the Bad Robot himself -- along with his usual posse of Alex Kurtzmann and Roberto Orci, et. al. -- have clearly one-upped themselves with "Star Trek: Into Darkness".

Full disclosure: I am a fan of the bespectacled one so I have to distance myself a bit when reviewing one of his films. I loved his TV series, Fringe, and think his films, even the flawed "Super 8" have been splendid interrogations of issues that, imagined or real, really do haunt us. What if there was at least one alternate universe where there was an alt.you - leaving aside whether it were possible, what marvelous moral and personal questions would have to be asked (and are asked so ably).

The latest Trek entry fairly hums from the opening shot - action, special effects, snaring of a pastiche of Trek tropes (the Prime Directive, the Enterprise itself as Badass) and the film does not let up one minute from there on in. The basic of the plot summary is Kirk and crew have flexed their young muscles, and been found wanting, a serious baddie with real Trek bona fides comes to destroy the world, and, well, you know the rest. Said baddie is played with delicious, scene-chewing relish by Benedict Cumberpatch, and the back and forth of "is he really bad" or "is he perhaps good" helps propel the story forward. Any more and I would have to put the tiresome Spoiler Alert in my review.

What struck me most about this Trek entry -- and in this it reminded me of the similarly excellent "SkyFall" -- was how well it paid homage to the unspoken narrative arc of the franchise. There are echoes from TOS (the original series, for those of you not in the know), the original film series and the mythology that Abrams and his crack writing team helped add to with their first entry. Again, you might have already heard about some of these, so I don't want to spoil them for you. But hey, it won't ruin things if I tell you that this crew does not have trouble with Tribbles.

No, what has always made Star Trek so important is not that it is science fiction -- although at times some of the best Sci Fi genre work has come out of it (can any one say Jean-Luc Picard?) -- but that it interrogates important moral and political issues in a deeply personal way. And despite the fun we like to have with William Shatner, great story writing and acting has been a hallmark of Trek-dom. This entry is no exception - Chris Pine, Cumberpatch, Karl Urban the entire cast is expertly chosen.

And this really brings me to my point. Did you ever see Kirk cry in TOS? I have been re-watching it on Hulu (praise be!) and so far nary a salty drop in sight. The male cry count in Darkness is three - count it, three. OK, well, perhaps if we restricted it to human males, or 100% human males it would go down. But there are three distinct emotional nadirs in the film at three crucial moments - and the guys cry. They cry. Wow. One might be faked (again, no spoilers) but at least two are legit, and quite powerful. This is important, not because culturally we may be much more accepting of men letting out their emotions (although that is important) but because the emotional resonance in Abrams' Trek entries itself resonates with Trek's ability to take on issues head-on. What if you had to make the decision between living, or saving hundreds of lives - you wouldn't necessarily be noble about it, in fact you might be pretty darn scared. Facing death? Not for the faint of heart, nor for lesser actors or actresses.

So the real genius of "Star Trek: Into Darkness", for all its crisp plotting and great special effects is how it uses that platform to tell more than one deeply human story. And, how the actors -- some of whom, like Pine are really coming into their own -- rise to the occasion.

Engage...er, enjoy!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

No End in Sight

I had the good fortune to watch Dror Moreh's riveting documentary "The Gatekeepers" last night. As an aside, I want to say that I love living in LA (not bragging, by the way) where I can drive less than two miles to a theater -- in this case, the Laemmle Town Center -- that actually plays thought-provking flims like this. Their slogan is "Not Afraid of Subtitltes" and let me assure you my wife and I are not.

A brief summary: Shin Bet is the not-so-secret organziation in Israel that has been tasked, since the 1967 war with protecting the country against terrorist attacks. From the time it was first founded, to today, as you might imagine, its mission has undergone a significant change. In fact, it is hard to tell if anyone, even the eponymous "gatekeepers" -- the series of heads of Shin Bet who were interviewed for the film -- even know today what they are supposed to be doing. At one time, when the 'enemy' seemed to be clearly the Palestinian 'terrorists' such as the PLO, it was perhaps pretty clear. Today, with Islamic extremism expressing itself in many, many forms and all around the world, it is perhaps impossible to say what Shin Bet shold really be doing. Tracking down terrorists - if so, which onces?

It is the posing of this question -- deftly through interviews with every Shin Bet director from the beginning, to the most recent -- in combination with archival footage and a haunting score by Regis Baillet and Jermoe Chassagnard (as Ab Ovo) that makes this Oscar-nonimated piece so powerful. I have not seen such a skillfully assembled documentary, which makes its primary case as compellingly is "The Gatekeepers" does, in quite a long time.

One aspect of my personal experience watching this film has to do with the fact that my family and I recently visited Israel. It was my first time in that remarkable country, and having seen first-hand how divided it really is gave me a deep appreciation of the complexity, and nuance of the Irsael/Palestine conflict. But "The Gatekeepers" isn't soley an interrogation of the 'problem' of Palestine. The decision to interview the heads of Shin Bet lends an eerie credence to Moreh's film, and their disarming honesty makes it difficult to judge them too harshly, regardless of your political opionons.

If you love Israel, the Middle East or just great documentary filmmaking, get thee to "The Gatekeepers".