Thursday, February 26, 2015

#1,655. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Directed By: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller

Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Vic Morrow

Tag line: "You're traveling through another dimension. A dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind..."

Trivia: John Landis's segments were the first to be filmed, and Steven Spielberg considered canceling the entire project after the deadly helicopter crash

Twilight Zone: The Movie, a 1983 anthology based on the popular television series from the ‘50s and ‘60s, will forever be marred by the tragedy that occurred during its production. On July 23, 1982, while shooting the John Landis-directed segment Time Out, actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed when a helicopter lost control (Morrow and one of the kids were decapitated by the rotor blade, while the second child was crushed to death by the falling copter). It was a disaster that should never have happened (in violation of child labor laws, the scene was being shot at 2:30 in the morning), and regardless of how many times I see it, I can’t watch the film without thinking of this terrible event.

Following a brief prologue (starring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd), Twilight Zone: The Movie presents four tales of mystery and suspense, starting with the above-mentioned Time Out, in which Morrow plays William Conner, a Vietnam vet and unapologetic bigot who, while sitting with some co-workers in a bar after work, loudly complains about minorities, shouting a few racial slurs in the process. But before the night is out, the “Zone” will show him the error of his ways. The next segment, titled Kick the Can, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and concerns the residents of a retirement community who, following the arrival of newbie Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), are reminded what it means to be young. Joe Dante’s It’s a Good Life sees teacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) make a trip to the home of young Anthony (Jeremy Licht), who, thanks to his special powers, always gets his way. Rounding out the group is George Miller’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, about an airline passenger (John Lithgow) whose fear of flying is taken to a whole new level.

Each segment has its strengths, starting with the prologue, an often-funny opening scene (thanks to Brooks’ and Aykroyd’s snappy dialogue) with an unforgettable ending. Along with its message of tolerance, Time Out reminds us just how good Vic Morrow was at being bad. Having made a career out of playing bastards in movies like Blackboard Jungle, The Bad News Bears, and Humanoids from the Deep, Morrow continues his streak by portraying an extreme racist, one who gets his comeuppance when forced to experience life in both Nazi Germany (as a Jew) and the rural south (as a black man). A third sequence, set in Vietnam, was dropped as a result of the accident. Kick the Can is the film’s most light-hearted tale (you can’t help but like it), shining a light on the elderly, and how, more often than not, they’re overlooked by the younger generations. It’s a Good Life is the visually vibrant story about a boy who can make things happen just by thinking about them, an ability that scares the hell out of his relatives (Kevin McCarthy, of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame, plays Anthony’s subservient Uncle Walt). It’s a creepy segment that, at times, gets under your skin, but when it comes to sheer terror, nothing can top Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. John Lithgow delivers a manic performance as the frightened passenger who, because of his hysteria, can’t convince anyone that there’s something sinister walking around on the plane’s wings. A taut, edgy tale about paranoia, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet will have you squirming on the edge of your seat.

While it’s impossible to forget the tragedy that haunts the film to this day, there’s no denying that Twilight Zone: The Movie is a whole lot of fun to watch, with a series of tales that offer something for everyone.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

#1,654. House of Last Things (2013)

Directed By: Michael Bartlett

Starring: Lindsey Haun, Blake Berris, RJ Mitte

Tag line: "Pick up the key... unlock the past"

Trivia: Marks the feature film debut of RJ Mitte, aka Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad

In an effort to save his crumbling marriage, Alan (Randy Schulman) takes his troubled wife Sarah (Diane Dalton) to Italy for a month-long vacation. To watch over their house while they’re gone, he hires Kelly (Lindsey Haun), who temporarily moves in with her mentally slow brother Tim (RJ Mitte). What looks to be an easy job is soon complicated, however, when Kelly’s out-of-control boyfriend Jesse (Blake Berris) shows up and refuses to leave. To make things worse, Jesse comes across a lost boy while shopping at the local supermarket and decides to bring him back to the house. To Kelly’s horror, Jesse announces that he plans to hold the boy, whose name is Adam (Micah Nelson), until his parents pay a ransom for his return. It’s around this time that the three begin to experience strange visions, all of which suggest that something terrible happened inside the house. What they don’t realize is that Alan and Sarah, despite being thousands of miles away, are sharing these visions. Will they discover the cause of this unusual phenomenon in time, or will all five fall victim to the energy that’s enveloping the house and all who live in it?

Written and directed by Michael Bartlett, 2013’s House of Last Things is in no particular hurry to reveal its various mysteries. Under normal circumstances, I’m a fan of films that move slowly, building an ominous tone as they weave their way towards its eventual outcome, but House of Last Things takes it all a bit too far. Time and again, we’re presented with images of yellow balloons, golf balls, and apples, all of which clearly figure in a solution that’s always just out of reach. To further complicate matters, director Bartlett occasionally tosses in an element that goes absolutely nowhere; an elderly woman named Rose (Michele Mariana), claiming to be Sarah’s therapist, pops up on occasion, spouting bizarre platitudes that only manage to confuse us. In the end, House of Last Things wallows in ambiguity for so long that the ending, regardless of what it might be, couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.

And yet there wasn’t a single moment while watching House of Last Things that I wanted it all to end. Despite its over-indulgence, the film is crafted in such a way that it held my attention throughout, and even though it was something of an anti-climax, I was anxious to see how it all tied together. Without a doubt, House of Last Things is, at times, a frustrating movie, but never once did I find it boring.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

#1,653. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon

Tag line: "The Biggest Show On Earth!"

Trivia: One of the neon-outlined violins used in the Shadow Waltz number is on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC

42nd Street may be the best of Busby Berkeley’s musicals, but my favorite will always be Gold Diggers of 1933. With its intricate dance routines and some truly funny moments, Gold Diggers of 1933 is fun with a capital “F”.

When his latest show is shut down by the creditors, Broadway director Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) heads back to the drawing board and before long dreams up a production he’s convinced will run for years. The problem is: he needs money to put it on. Enter songwriter Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), who, along with being hired by Hopkins to write the show’s music, coughs up the cash to produce it, on the condition that his girlfriend Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler) is cast as the lead. Hopkins quickly agrees, and also signs up Polly’s roommates Carol (Joan Blondell) and Trixie (Aline MacMahon), as well as plenty of other hopefuls who badly need the work. A talented singer, Brad is courted by Hopkins to play one of the lead roles, but says he’s unable to do so. At first, he doesn’t say why he can’t perform, but soon his reasons are revealed: his name is actually Robert Bradford, of the Boston Bradfords, a wealthy family that would surely not approve of his being mixed up in show business. It turns out Brad was right; when his older brother Lawrence (Warren William) catches wind of his involvement in Hopkins’ latest venture, he travels to New York with Fanuel Peabody (Guy Kibbee), the Bradford’s family lawyer, to talk Brad into dropping out. What’s more, they object to his being romantically linked to a common showgirl, and decide to offer Polly a large sum of money to break things off with Brad. But when they mistake Carol for Polly, it leads to a series of mishaps that will ultimately teach both Lawrence and Peabody a thing or two about Broadway girls.

Gold Diggers of 1933 starts off strong with a rousing rendition of “We’re in the Money”, performed by Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers), who even sings one verse in Pig Latin! It’s an elaborate production number, but is nowhere near as extravagant as “Pettin’ in the Park”, which features everything from policemen on roller skates to pretty girls walking in the rain. Towards the end of the film, we’re treated to “The Shadow Waltz” (the highlight of which is a sequence involving dozens of violins that glow in the dark), as well as “Remember My Forgotten Man”, a melancholy ditty set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. As good as the first three tunes are, “Remember My Forgotten Man” is hands down the movie’s best musical number.

Its songs aside, Gold Diggers of 1933 is also a very funny movie. Believing Carol is Polly, Lawrence Bradford wines and dines her, hoping to make her fall in love with him so that she’ll leave Brad alone. Aided by Trixie, who sets to work seducing the lawyer Fanuel Peabody (she gives him the nickname “Fanny”), Carol goes on pretending that she’s Polly, and forces Lawrence to spend big bucks on her (a sequence set in the girl’s apartment, where they convince both Lawrence and Peabody to buy them expensive new hats, is pretty damn hilarious). It isn’t long before the two stuffed shirts fall for the girls’ charms, and watching them get raked over the coals by the conniving ladies is a definite highpoint of what I believe is Busby Berkeley’s shining cinematic accomplishment. Unlike most musicals of this era, Gold Diggers of 1933 is every bit as entertaining without the music as it is with it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

#1,652. Life Itself (2014)

Directed By: Steve James

Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel

Tag line: "The only thing Roger loved more than movies"

Trivia: Voice actor Stephen Stanton provides the voice of Roger Ebert during his various narrations

It was an overcast day in April of 2013 when I first learned of Roger Ebert’s death. I was on break at work, and was heading out to my car to check my cell phone (unlike most people, I don’t have a smart phone, so I don’t feel the need to have it on me at all times). It was then that I saw the text message from my friend John: the film critic who had changed my life was dead.

One of the unwritten rules I laid down for myself when I started this 2,500 movie challenge of mine was that I would avoid referencing current events, which, as everyone knows, aren’t “current” for very long. It was my hope that, in doing so, my reviews would remain “timeless”, meaning people would read them and have no idea when they were written; the glowing praise I heaped on Local Hero five years ago could have just as easily been penned this morning. On April 6, 2013, I decided to temporarily toss that rule out the window. To ignore the demise of one of the all-time great film critics was unthinkable to me, so I reviewed 1984’s Angel (to understand why I chose this movie, you’ll have to click the link) and in so doing said goodbye to a man who’d turned me on to some of the best motion pictures ever produced.

That was my tribute, meager though it may be; the 2014 documentary Life Itself was director Steve James’ homage to this exceptional man. Narrated at times by Ebert impersonator Stephen Stanton, the movie covers every aspect of Roger Ebert’s life, from what was common knowledge (his often-turbulent partnership with Gene Siskel and their hugely popular television show; his career with the Chicago Sun-Times; the screenplay he wrote for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; and his drawn-out battle against cancer) to those things very few people knew about him (his childhood in Urbana, Illinois; the time he spent as editor of his college newspaper; his bout with alcoholism; and his loving relationship with his wife Chaz and their grandchildren). In addition to presenting his past, James and his camera were at Ebert’s side right up to the end, when, surrounded by those who loved him, he realized he could fight no longer.

Featuring interviews with some of the cinema’s true visionaries (Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog) as well as its up-and-coming stars (at one point, Ramin Bahrani, director of 2005’s Man Push Cart, receives a gift from Ebert that immediately makes him the envy of every film fan on earth), the movie also utilizes archival footage to paint as complete a picture of its subject as it possibly can, up to and including candid images of his final days. More than a documentary, Life Itself is joy and heartbreak wrapped up in a very engaging two-hour package, and I, for one, am glad it was made.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

#1,651. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Directed By: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender

Tag line: "The extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup"

Trivia: The tree where Solomon Northup sees several men being lynched was actually used for lynching and is surrounded by the graves of murdered slaves

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man living in 1840’s New York who, despite being born free, is kidnapped, transported to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. Given the name “Platt” by his captors, Northup first becomes the “property” of plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a kind, decent man who, at one point, praises Solomon for devising a plan to transport lumber via a small waterway. Alas, not everyone is impressed with Solomon’s accomplishment, and when he has an altercation with hired hand John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford has no alternative but to sell Solomon to fellow plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). A drunk prone to violent outbursts, Epps is a hard, often savage Master who, much to the chagrin of his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson), is also carrying on a sexual relationship with pretty female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). Knowing full well what Epps is capable of, Solomon (who, in order to survive, had to pretend he couldn’t read or write) takes a chance and approaches Canadian laborer Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), telling him his story and asking him to deliver a letter to his wife and two children back in New York, letting them know where he is. But will the message reach them in time?

Much like the ‘70s mini-series Roots, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from depicting the cruelties of slavery, not all of which involved physical violence. While bartering to sell his new shipment of slaves, trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) ignores the pleas of a young mother (Adapero Oduye) and separates her from her children, selling her son (Craig Tate) to another buyer and keeping the woman’s daughter (Storm Reid) for himself (because she’s of mixed birth, the girl is sure to bring in big money). As bad as this is, it pales in comparison to what Solomon and the other slaves are forced to endure while working on Edwin Epps’ plantation. Believing it’s his God-given right (he quotes a scripture passage that, in his mind, justifies a master’s superiority over his “property”), Epps regularly beats his slaves, sometimes over minor infractions (two receive lashings for picking slightly less cotton than they did the day before). In what is certainly the film’s most upsetting scene, Epps even has Patsey whipped for visiting a nearby plantation (the mistress of which is a black woman, played by Alfre Woodard). It truly is a horrible thing to behold (director McQueen goes so far as to show the flesh being torn from Patsey’s back with each successive lash).

The performances are exceptional: Michael Fassbender is unforgettable as the brutal Epps, and Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsey, who suffers the indignities of being her master’s “favorite” (the scene where Epps has his way with her is as troubling as any of the movie’s more violent moments). Standing above them all, however, is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, the free man thrown headfirst into a nightmare. The difficulties he faces over the course of these 12 years would have broken most men, but despite the harsh treatment he’s subjected to at every turn, Solomon never gives up hope, and, as he says at one point, “I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune”, which is exactly what he does. 12 Years a Slave is, indeed, a tough film to watch, yet we do so because of Solomon Northup, whose desire to be free shines like a beacon in the darkness. He remains, from start to finish, a remarkable individual, and Ejiofor does a masterful job bringing him to life.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

#1,650. Birdman (2014)

Directed By: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton

Trivia: Michael Keaton and the rest of the cast had to adapt to Alejandro González Iñárritu's rigorous shooting style, which required them to perform up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precisely choreographed marks

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a perfect storm of creativity, a film that fires on all cylinders (execution, performance, and story) to create a work of art that’s positively stunning.

It’s been years since actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) played Birdman, the popular comic book hero whose exploits were featured in several blockbuster films. Since that time, his career has stalled, and in an attempt to get it rolling again, he’s written a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”, which is set to debut on Broadway in a few days’ time. Alas, things are not going well for either Riggan or his play (which he’s also starring in and directing). For one, his supporting actor (who, truth be told, wasn’t all that good) was hit in the head by a falling light during rehearsals. For a moment or two, this tragedy seemed to have a happy outcome when co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) announces her boyfriend is Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), one of Broadway’s hottest stars, and that he may be interested in taking the part. After refinancing his house to meet Shiner’s salary demands, Riggan is horrified to learn his new co-star is a prima donna whose method acting ruins one of the play’s all-important previews. On top of this, Riggan’s attempt to reconnect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who’s working as his personal assistant, isn’t going as he’d hoped it would (in a moment of anger, she tells Riggan, in no uncertain terms, that both he and his play are a joke). Worst of all is the possibility that Riggan is losing his mind; he’s hounded constantly by his alter-ego, Birdman, who’s trying to convince the aging actor to once again don the costume and appear in another film. Riggan’s best friend and business partner, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), tells him everything will be OK, but as opening night approaches, Riggan Thomson is convinced that both his career and his life are about to come crashing down around him.

As designed by Iñárritu, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), looks as if the entire film was shot in a single take. While this isn’t the case (special effects were utilized to achieve what appeared to be a seamless flow), the director did subject his cast and crew to a series of very long takes, during which the camera roams freely around the playhouse, following one character after another as they prepare for the show's upcoming debut. Aside from giving the movie a “real-time” vibe, this method also enhanced the various performances, introducing a level of tension that served the story perfectly (a flubbed line or miscue by any actor meant an entire scene, some of which stretch for minutes on-end, would have to be re-shot). The supporting cast is extraordinary; Edward Norton delivers what I consider to be one of his best performances as the egotistical Mike, an actor willing to give everything he’s got to achieve realism on the stage (while performing a bedroom scene, Mike suggests that he and Lesley actually have sex, which leads to one of the film’s funniest visual gags). Also excellent is Emma Stone, taking what could’ve been a cliché character (the troubled daughter angry with her absentee father) and bringing her convincingly to life.

As for the lead, Michael Keaton is near flawless as Riggan, a man pushed to his limits as he tries to salvage what’s left of his dignity. The parallels with the actor’s own past are hard to ignore (Keaton played the title character in Batman and Batman Returns, only to struggle after hanging the cape up), and I’m sure this worked to his advantage, but the depths he takes this character to (Riggan’s conversations with the Birdman are troubling, to say the least), coupled with his confidence in some of the picture’s lighter moments (like the scene where Riggan is locked out of the theater during a preview performance, forcing him to dart through the crowded streets in his underwear), show that Keaton dug considerably deeper for the role, relying on more than real-life experience to give his character the intensity needed to carry the film on his shoulders.

There are some strong contenders in this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees, with a number of films poised to compete with Birdman for Oscar’s highest honors; if I were a betting man, I’d lay money that Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, will beat out Keaton for Best Actor, while J.K. Simmons, so good in Whiplash, will trump Norton’s bid in the Supporting Actor category. And I’ll be shocked if Linklater’s Boyhood doesn’t capture the top prize as the year’s Best Picture. But regardless of whether or not it’s a big winner at this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony (Iñárritu could walk away with Best Director, and either this movie or The Grand Budapest Hotel will win for original screenplay), Birdman is a remarkable achievement, one I believe will stand the test the time.

Years from now, people will still be talking about Birdman, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if it shows up on a few “Best of the Decade” lists in 2019. It truly is that good.

Friday, February 20, 2015

#1,649. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric

Trivia: Jeff Goldblum plays Vilmos Kovacs, a tribute to cinematographers László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond

Moments after Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was over, I wanted to see it again. Chock full of style and humor, it’s a movie that practically demands multiple viewings, and is so entertaining that you don’t mind watching it more than once.

An author (Tom Wilkinson) talks of the events that led to the writing of his most popular book. Told in flashback, we join him when, as a younger man (played by Jude Law), he resided at the nearly deserted Grand Budapest Hotel, which had once been the Republic of Zubrowka’s most popular lodgings. One day, he has a chance encounter with Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the elderly owner of the hotel, who invites the author to dinner.

Over the course of their evening together, Moustafa recounts his early days as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest (the younger Zero is portrayed by Tony Revolori), when he was mentored by M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the refined concierge who oversaw the hotel in its heyday, just before the outbreak of a costly World War. Along with his many duties, Monsieur Gustave would personally see to the happiness and well-being of the wealthy old ladies who frequented the Grand Budapest. One such woman, Madame M. (Tilda Swinton, in heavy make-up), with whom Gustave had a very special relationship, passes away, and in her will leaves the concierge a priceless painting titled “Boy with Apple”. This doesn’t sit well with Madame M’s son, Dmitri (Adrian Brody), who orders his right-hand man Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to frame Gustave for murder. Accused of poisoning Madame M. for his own personal gain, Gustave is shipped off to prison, but with the help of his trusty lobby boy Zero, as well as Zero’s young fiancé Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), he intends to prove his innocence and, if possible, bring his accusers to justice.

You can always rely on Wes Anderson to create a visually interesting film, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is arguably his most stunning achievement to date. With its painted backgrounds and old-world locations, the movie has a very European feel, a change of pace for the director, whose previous films put the focus squarely on American intellectuals. The Grand Budapest Hotel also features an impressive cast, including F. Murray Abraham (as the melancholy older version of Zero the lobby buy); Edward Norton (the local military commander); Bill Murray (a concierge who assists Gustave in his time of need); and Harvey Keitel (a fellow inmate of Gustave’s who’s devised a plan to escape the “impenetrable” prison where they’re being held). Yet, despite its phenomenal supporting crew, it’s the movie’s lead, Ralph Fiennes, who delivers its best performance (I honestly didn’t know he could be as witty as he was in this picture). Along with the humor, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, at times, quite exciting; the scene in which Gustave and several other inmates try to escape from prison is both tense and exhilarating, yet it’s the film’s snowbound chase scene (where two characters on a sled pursue a third on skis) that’s easily its most thrilling.

Critics have called The Grand Budapest Hotel a masterpiece, and it’s been nominated for a number of awards (including 9 Oscar nods and a Golden Globe win as the year’s Best Picture in the comedy / musical category). Personally, I have a hard time ranking this movie over The Royal Tenenbaums, which is one of my all-time favorite films. But to be honest, I can’t say with any certainty I’ll always feel this way. It’s possible that, the more I see The Grand Budapest Hotel, the more I’ll fall in love with it.