Monthly Archive for February, 2009

Coraline (3D)

Coraline (3D) (2/26/09) DWA Screening (2009 ****) Directed by Henry Selick, based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman. I was just about as blown-away by this film as I think is possible. This is Selick’s best work yet and the folks at Laika should be very proud of what they accomplished. Coraline shows that having the same person as both Production Designer and Director can result in something amazing, especially if that someone is Henry Selick. This film was a visual treat from beginning to end, and it absolutely took me to places I had never been while sitting in a theater. Much of the stop-motion animation was jaw-droppingly good. The 3-D effect was flawlessly executed and while it wasn’t obtrusive, it definitely contributed to my experience. The word “immersion” gets bandied about a lot in all the hype you read about 3-D, but here it is very apropos. I sincerely hope Coraline is remembered come Oscar time 2010; it was just that good. Finally, I’d like to give a special shout-out to Robert Ducey, a former co-worker who was Animation Technical Director on the film. Congratulations, Rob!

American Scary

American Scary (2/24/09) Netflix (2004 ***) Directed by John E. Hudgens. You would never guess it from the title, but this low-budget documentary is a look into the world of the late-night Horror Hosts. I have fond childhood memories watching Dr. San Guinary on Omaha’s KMTV in the early 1970’s. Sadly, my favorite host wasn’t included in this documentary, but that’s not particularly surprising, since there were so many spread out all over the country. One interesting thing I learned from American Scary was that Ohio turned out to be the virtual horror host epicenter. Who knew? Undoubtedly this documentary would have benefited from a larger budget and better production values, but I enjoyed it enough and learned enough from it to recommend it to anyone who has an interest in its subject.

Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon (2/23/09) DWA Screening (2008 ***) Directed by Ron Howard, screenplay by Peter Morgan (based on his play), starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, with a supporting cast of highly recognizable faces. This film described a minor chapter in the history of America, a time when a moment was created by the collision of media and politics. I have enjoyed Ron Howard’s films in the past, but even in spite of its Oscar nomination this past year, I can’t help but feel this material may have been more powerful in the hands of a different director, with a more obscure cast. Would that film have been as accessible or commercial? Probably not.

Taken

Taken (2/21/09) Glendale Mann 10 (2009 ***) Directed by Pierre Morel, starring Liam Neeson, screenplay by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen. Besson also wrote the Transporter series as well as writing and directing The Fifth Element (1997) and La Femme Nikita (1990). Taken didn’t disappoint, but it did seem like warmed-over Bourne Identity. The best thing the story had going for it was a strong, clear motivation for its protagonist: The safe return of his teenage daughter. Liam Neeson was solid, but not always believable, as the ass-kicking lead. I never thought I’d write these words: Liam Neeson is no Matt Damon.

Gold Diggers of 1933

Gold Diggers of 1933 (2/20/09) TV-FMC (1933 **½) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers, dance direction by Busby Berkeley. Set during the fourth year of the depression, this movie is somehow all the more appropriate for the economically troubled times in which we live. Rogers was arguably the biggest star to come out of this film, but every time she appeared she seemed to be shuffled off-screen. My wife suggested she may have made the film for contractual reasons. The film ended with an upbeat little number called “The Forgotten Man” about WWI vets who had traded the front lines for bread lines. What a downer that was. 1933 audiences seeking escapist entertainment undoubtedly left the theater more depressed than when they’d entered!

The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch (2/20/09) TV-FMC (1955 ***½) Directed by Billy Wilder, based on the play by George Axelrod, starring Tom Ewell, Marilyn Monroe and nobody else of consequence. When his wife and son go away for the summer, Richard Sherman (an editor of sensationalistic paperbacks) gets his freak on: smoking, drinking, talking to himself at length and luring his blonde, hot (in more ways than one) neighbor to his apartment, where he promises her air-conditioning… in every room! Film historians can easily point to this film as the one that made Marilyn a star. She positively radiated her unique blend of sex appeal and innocence through every second she was onscreen. Who could possibly deny the iconic power of the subway air blowing up her skirt? Ewell had previously performed this role on Broadway, and his performance was certainly solid. His career never quite took off, perhaps because Jack Lemmon made Ewell somewhat redundant. On a weird/personal note, I had the strangest sensation as I watched this film: I felt as if I’d lived it! I kept getting sense memories: New York in the summer, the window air conditioner cooling my skin, holding the highballs Ewell mixed. I don’t believe in past lives, really, but I’m not sure how else to explain it.

Primary

Primary (2/19/09) TV-Sundance (1960 ***) Directed by Robert Drew. This documentary followed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the 1960 primary in Wisconsin. It was an interesting, if not quite fascinating, look behind the scenes in American politics. Much has been written about how the 1960 election represented a turning point, a modernization of politics, and that was well represented here. I’m somewhat spoiled by fifty years of advancements in documentary techniques, so I couldn’t quite turn a blind eye to the film’s crude production values. However, some of the footage (like following JFK through a crowd and onto a stage) was engrossing. It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between this film and our recent election, and it’s clear Obama and Kennedy share a similar charisma. One thought occurred to me as I watched: I would love to see Aaron Sorkin create a movie based on a fictionalized version of politics in this era. I think it would not only be fascinating but also quite relevant to a contemporary audience.

Bullets or Ballots

Bullets or Ballots (2/19/09) FX-MOV (1936 ***¼) Directed by William Keighley, starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell. Robinson played a former police detective going deep undercover to crack a syndicate. There is much joy in watching an old movie you’ve never seen before and having it turn out to be a real gem. Such was the case of the awkwardly titled Bullets or Ballots. This film definitely gave me a new respect for Robinson as an actor and as a star. He had an inescapable presence; whenever he was on the screen I couldn’t look away. It was also great fun seeing Bogart in one of his early “thug” roles, and there was plenty of evidence he was a star in the making. His character was a little on the one-note side, but he did a nice job with what he had to work with.

Mother, Jugs & Speed

Mother, Jugs & Speed (2/18/09) FX-MOV (1976 **1/2) Directed by Peter Yates, starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel. This was an odd pick for me; please forgive me. I absolutely remember watching this film as the second or third feature at an Omaha Drive-In in the late 1970’s, and that nostalgia is what motivated me to record it. I would argue that Mother, Jugs and Speed might best be viewed from the front seat of a car. It’s not a terrible film; Yate’s direction was solid, and most of the actors looked like they were trying their best, but unfortunately they were unable to elevate the movie beyond the limitations of its screenplay. Also, it required a degree of willing disbelief. In particular, it was a challenge to believe the romantic relationship between the statuesque (Amazonian) Raquel Welch and the fresh-faced, but criminally height-challenged, Harvey Keitel.

Who Gets to Call it Art?

Who Gets to Call it Art? (2/18/09) TV-Sundance (2006 ***) Directed by Peter Rosen. The subject of this documentary was Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, who passed away in 2004. It was remarkable the extent to which a single individual shaped the art world from the abstract impressionists of the 1950’s, through the Pop Art explosion of the 1960’s and beyond. At one point Geldzahler and Andy Warhol were best friends, calling each other multiple times a day.