Monthly Archive for November, 2013

Lifeboat

Lifeboat (11/30/13) TCM (1944 ***) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the story by John Steinbeck, starring Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Hume Cronyn and Walter Slezak. When a German U-boat sinks a passenger ship a handful of survivors share their lifeboat with a German sailor. The central conceit of this film was whether or not it was possible to tell a compelling drama that takes place entirely in the confined space of a lifeboat. Well, if any director was up to that challenge, it was Alfred Hitchcock. After making his obligatory cameo in an ad on the back of a newspaper, Hitch proceeded to present a seamless story for a full hour and a half. Though not really a suspense, it does contain some suspenseful reveals, secrets and life-and-death conflicts. While much of Lifeboat’s subtext about Germany’s Aryan ideals is far less salient now than it was in 1944, and even though it’s not one of Hitchcock’s most memorable pictures, Lifeboat is still well worth watching, especially for students of his films.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield (11/27/13) MGM Grand, Las Vegas (2013 ***1/4) David Copperfield is a Las Vegas fixture, and was an appropriate choice for us, especially with half price tickets. Prior to the show, I was somewhat familiar with his work, and had been aware of (but don’t specifically recall watching) his TV specials in which he made impossibly large objects disappear, but had never seen him live. I was surprised first of all, at how fairly scruffy he looked, wearing an un-tucked oversized shirt, rather than a traditional magician’s tuxedo. The second surprise came with just how deliciously cheesy he was, playing the part of “David Copperfield” to the hilt. His audience the night we saw him was composed largely of Chinese tourists, and I suspected they were part of a large tour group. The reason I mention that is I appreciated how Copperfield tailored his performance to them, making them (and other foreign visitors) feel very welcome. Overall, the show was fun, with a wide variety of magic tricks, some of which (like a time-traveling emailed photograph) seemed unnecessarily complicated, but others of which were quite impressive. The most memorable trick for me involved wrist bands that had been distributed to the audience at the beginning of the show that later transformed, exhibiting an unusual quality. Hopefully the trick didn’t require the theater to be flooded with gamma radiation.

Gravity

Gravity (11/27/13) Orleans Hotel, Las Vegas (2013 ****) Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris. After a catastrophic accident in space, a female astronaut faces the greatest challenge of her life as she struggles to get back to Earth. This film is amazing on a technical level and it’s well deserving of my 4-star reviews as well as the awards it will surely receive. I only know a bit about the technical process involved in making the film as immersive an experience as it is. With the computer controlled lighting rigs and synchronized cameras, it may well represent a new frontier in filmmaking, or at least in the integration of effects. But the film isn’t simply a technical feat. It’s also essentially a one-woman show, with Sandra Bullock onscreen for 95% of the film. She does a wonderful and effective job, and there’s certainly a strong emotional component to the film. I think that was overshadowed, however, by the strong series of action set pieces that make up a story that tug pretty hard at the boundaries of believability.

(11/26/13) MGM Grand, Las Vegas (2013 ***1/2) Created and directed by Robert Lepage. Two twins witness the deaths of their imperial parents, are separated and must endure great trials — including combat and attacks by archers — to be reunited. Each Cirque du Soleil show offers a different theme, but this particular show has far more of a story than any of the others, as opposed to a collection of what are essentially high-end French circus acts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The multi-million dollar custom-built theater is stunning, and it’s almost worth the price of admission just to see it. The stage features a giant moving and rotating platform driven by hydraulics, which is featured throughout the show, often moving and tilted to varying degrees. This show is infamous for one of the darkest days in Cirque du Soleil history, the death of performer Sarah Guillot-Guyard on June 29, 2013. As a result of that tragedy, which occurred during the climactic battle scene in which the platform was nearly vertical, that sequence was altered significantly, showing projected animations on the surface instead of live humans. This change to the program lessened its impact monumentally, and while I appreciate the merits behind being respectful to the artist’s death, this alteration really took the wind out of ‘s dramatic sails.

Le Rêve (The Dream)

Le Rêve (The Dream) (11/24/13) Wynn Casino, Las Vegas (2013 ****) Created by Franco Dragone. Le Rêve is a water-based show in the style of the Cirque du Soleil productions. According to Wikipedia, Le Rêve, which means “The Dream” in French, was actually the working name of The Wynn resort before it became The Wynn, and so the name of the show is intimately associated with its home, which was, incidentally, where we stayed during our Vegas Thanksgiving trip. Having seen many of the Cirque du Soleil shows, I didn’t expect much from the production, but was interested in getting tickets. My wife and I gladly opted for second-row seats in the “splash zone,” having had good luck with similar seats for O. I was blown away by how well-produced the show was, and opposed to the Cirque productions, it had one other nice feature: Cameras were allowed in the theater and audience members were allowed to take photographs! Next time you’re in Las Vegas, I highly recommend checking out this show.

The Wrestler

The Wrestler (11/23/13) IFC (2008 ***) Directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Robert D. Siegel, starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Randy “The Ram Robinson” is an aging professional wrestler who’s forced to leave the spotlight in exchange for a menial job at a supermarket. This is one of those films I’d been meaning to watch since it had originally been released. I had heard great things about it and of course it had received multiple award nominations. But the subject matter didn’t appeal to me and the likely downbeat nature was off-putting. And besides, Mickey Rourke just looked so damned odd in the awards shows. After watching Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), I decided to record The Wrestler and finally got around to watching it. It surprised me. Yes, it was a dirty, gritty character study about a guy whose sole talent can only be truly expressed inside a wrestling right. But it was also surprisingly funny at times and Rourke’s fantastic performance lent a high degree of sympathy to the last guy on earth I would have expected to like. As an added bonus, the film takes its viewers inside the utterly fascinating world of professional wrestling, a world in which I wouldn’t care to visit in real life.

The Voyeurs

The Voyeurs (11/20/13) Comics (2012 ***) Written and illustrated by Gabrielle Bell. Firmly rooted in the autobiographical comics genre, The Voyeurs is presented as Gabrielle Bell’s diary in comic book form. This was my first exposure to Bell’s work, which has been featured in four volumes of Best American Comics. In addition to working as what appears to be a literal chronological telling of the events in her life, the book also serves as an opportunity for Bell to share her feelings about the human condition as well as her own introspection about herself and how she reacts to the world around her. This is best illustrated in an extended story about her visit to the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, which made me far less interested in attending that convention. I’m saddened to say that Bell’s stories in this collection didn’t speak to me more. Examining why that is, I think it’s mostly because I’m getting on in years and it’s increasingly hard for me to listen to the (sorry) monotonic whining of people in their twenties and even thirties. Having said that, my 30-year-old self could relate to some of what she wrote, specifically her self-disappointment and feelings of detachment and borderline misanthropy. My inability to relate to it more as I am now is undoubtedly a reflection of who I’ve become in the past two decades, and I am actually kind of happy for that. In short, I respect the book for what it is and for Bell’s skill in achieving her goal, but that didn’t make The Voyeurs any less of a drag to read.

Priceless (Hors de prix)

Priceless (Hors de prix) (11/19/13) Netflix (2006 ***) Directed by Pierre Salvadori, starring Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Marie-Christine Adam and Vernon Dobtcheff. A hotel waiter is mistaken for a rich man and beds a gorgeous gold-digger. I absolutely loved Audrey Tautou in Amelie (2001), but there was a point in Priceless when I absolutely hated her character, and the film by association. However, from that dark, unsympathetic hole, the utterly unsympathetic character evolved and changed my feelings about her and the film by its satisfying conclusion. One bonus for some viewers is the fact that the entire film is set in the French Riviera, featuring a decadent, luxurious lifestyle that — as the film makes very clear — few can afford.

Diary of the Dead

Diary of the Dead (11/19/13) IFC (2007 ***) Written and directed by George A. Romero, starring Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts and Amy Lalonde. A group of college film students and their alcoholic professor find themselves shooting a documentary about the zombie apocalypse. In many ways, this film is a worthy and respectful modern take on Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead (1968), while incorporating the “video verite” of modern horror like 2007’s Paranormal Activity and its sequels. However, that still only elevated Diary of the Dead to the level of the well-made zombie cinema, of which there are now so many to choose from, including, of course, AMC’s regular TV series, The Walking Dead.

Somewhere in Time

Somewhere in Time (11/16/13) Netflix (1980 ***1/2) Directed by Jeannot Szwarc, screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel Bid Time Return, starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer. A young playwright becomes obsessed with a portrait and travels back in time so he can be with its beautiful subject. There’s no question: This is undoubtedly one of the most beloved time travel movies of all… well, time, and it has a pure romantic appeal that’s undeniable. However, even when it was released, it was a film impossible to watch with cynical eyes, and it would be a mistake to even try. According to the DVD’s “making of” featurette, it was a film that basically bombed at the box office and didn’t truly find an audience until it was shown on cable and released on video, back when both were in their infancy. Though I’m a sucker for time travel films, particularly those with a strong romantic component, the contribution of John Barry’s music cannot be underestimated. Even now as I write this review, the love theme is playing in my head, and I’m sure anyone who’s ever seen the film knows exactly what I mean. Here’s one minor inside note: I loved that Matheson’s screenplay named the professor that Richard Collier seeks out to travel back in time Dr. Gerald Finney. Jack Finney was a writer who specialized in time travel fiction (much of which I’ve read) that was tonally very similar to Matheson’s story. Finally, on a personal note, my maternal grandmother adored this film and it inspired my grandparents to take a trip to Mackinac Island, Michigan (where the film was shot), a year or so before my grandfather’s death. That trip was a very happy one for them, and I hope someday my wife and I can travel there ourselves. (Favorite)