Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rewind Series - 2010 Edition

     So, you may have noticed that TheMovieFrog has not had quite the output in May that I wrote in the several months least not yet.  Part of this has been due to some general housekeeping and catching up on my part.  Part of this has been due, however, to a lack of new films coming out on DVD that I planned to review.  I've decided to use this as an excuse to catch up on some of the films that I never managed to see in previous years beginning with 2010, the year before I started publishing TheMovieFrog.  I had, however already begun viewing a bevy of the year's most important films and grading them in preparation to write it.  As such, there are only a handful that I have not already seen.  There are some years that I caught a pitiful few of the really innovative and essential pictures. Rewinding through those years (this means YOU, 2007) will be epic by comparison.  As of now, my 2010 rewind agenda includes:

  1. Aftershocks - A Chinese disaster movie about one family's recovery after a real life earthquake during the seventies.
  2. Angel of Evil - Italian crime thriller about the notorious outlaw Renato Vallanzasca.
  3. Barney's Version - This best make-up nominee at the Oscars didn't get the most glowing write-ups but it does star Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman.  Even when actors of this caliber stumble, it is worth watching to note that we are all mortal...and who knows, I might LOVE it.
  4. Children of Invention - This Chinese language feature sounds heartwarming in a way that doesn't make me feel nauseous so it's in.
  5. Daddy Longlegs - This itty bitty almost unknown flick got JUST enough attention from the Gotham and Independent Spirit awards to make this list.
  6. The Edge - Russia's 2010-2011 Oscar submission may have failed to garner a nomination but it certainly sounds like a unique film...
  7. Enemies of the People - This tale of a man seeking revenge against the Khmer Rouge sounds like the (highly) rare documentary that plays like a thriller.
  8. Film Socialisme - French living legend Jean-Luc Godard is always worth checking out, even when his directorial efforts sound as potentially convoluted as this one.
  9. I Love You Phillip Morris - I wonder what sort of muggy expression Jim Carrey has come up with to represent "Gay Lust".  This film may have gay themes, but I expect the Human Rights Campaign appreciates the light it shone on these issues in much the same way that PETA valued Ace Ventura.  If Downey, Jr. caught hell over Tropic Thunder, how is Carrey not criticized for doing this film in "gay face".
  10. Idiots and Angels - This feature from cult classic French animator Bill Plympton is an allegorical tale of how a man can change.
  11. Lebanon - This Hebrew language piece is easily one of the most universally acclaimed films I missed in 2010, it has been called the Das Boot of tank movies, which sounds far less ludicrous than "the Citizen Kane of talking pig movies" which Babe actually was.
  12. Life During Wartime - Director Todd Solondz's long awaited quasi-sequel to his much beloved 1998 film Happiness.
  13. Outside the Law - This one was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language film, I believe representing Algeria.  It tells of three brothers caught up in that country's fight for independence.
  14. Passion Play - Writer/director Mitch Glazer did not get the BEST of reviews for this piece, but I can't resist a story about a gangster, an angel, and a trumpet player...especially with Bill Murray in the cast.
  15. Plan B - This Argentinian Spanish language film with Gay themes tells the story of a man who tries to come in between his ex-girlfriend and her new man.
  16. Post Mortem - Before he directed the Oscar nominated No, Pablo Larrain directed this other tale of Chile in the 1970's.
  17. Prodigal Sons - Kimberly Reed's documentary tells of the first time the transsexual film-maker returned a woman.
  18. The Tempest - Director Julie Taymor's reworking of Shakespeare's final play with Helen Mirren playing the lead as the wizard Prospera (re-named from Prospero to fit her gender).
  19. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - Woody Allen's yearly offering focuses on a recently divorced woman who seeks spiritual guidance from a psychic.

     Of course, I am open to adding films if readers request them, but I am trying not to go back over films I've already seen (although if I get several requests to re-watch something and review it, of course I will).  The list of 2010 productions that I have already watched (which as I mentioned, is extensive), and the grades that I gave them (for practice since I wasn't up and Frogging QUITE yet), are as follows:

     5 star films:
  127 Hours
  Animal Kingdom
  Black Swan
  Exit Through the Gift Shop
  How To Train Your Dragon
  In a Better World
  Mary and Max
  The Social Network
  Winter's Bone

     4 1/2 star films:
  Another Year
  Blue Valentine
  Day and Night (short)
  The Ghost Writer
  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  Inside Job
  Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
  The Kids Are All Right
  The King's Speech
  The Oath
  True Grit
  Waiting For Superman
  Waste Land
  White Material

     4 star films:
  The American
  Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky
  Despicable Me
  Easy A
  Enter the Void
  Fair Game
  The Fighter
  Four Lions
  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One
  Jack Goes Boating
  Let Me In
  Let's Pollute (short)
  The Lottery
  Love and Other Drugs
  Mesrine: Public Enemy
  My Name is Khan
  My Name is Maria (short)
  Never Let Me Go
  Nowhere Boy
  Of Gods and Men
  Peepli Live
  Please Give
  Precious Life
  Rabbit Hole
  Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll
  Shutter Island
  The Tillman Story
  The Town
  Toy Story 3
  Wild Grass

     3 1/2 star films:
  44-Inch Chest
  8: The Mormon Proposition
  Animated History of Poland (short)
  Around a Small Mountain
  Blood Done Sign My Name
  Book of Eli
  Cemetery Junction
  City Island
  Dinner For Schmucks
  Eat, Pray, Love
  The Eclipse
  Everyone Else
  Get Low
  The Girl Who Played With Fire
  The Gruffalo (short)
  Harry Brown
  The Karate Kid
  Lovely, Still
  Morning Glory
  Night Catches Us
  One Thousand Pictures (short)
  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  Tiny Furniture
  Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
  The Way Back
  Welcome To the Rileys
  Women Without Men

     3 star films:
  Blue Beard
  Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer
  Confession (short)
  Countdown to Zero
  The Crazies
  The Disappearance of Alice Creed
  Dust Kid (short)
  Everything Strange and New
  The Experiment
  Fish Tank
  For Colored Girls
  Going the Distance
  The Greatest
  Holy Rollers
  Iron Man 2
  The Killer Inside Me
  The Last Exorcism
  Leaves of Grass
  Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
  Letters To Juliet
  Love Ranch
  Made in Dagenham
  Mademoiselle Chambon
  Monica and David
  Mother and Child
  My Own Love Song
  Shrek Forever After
  A Solitary Man
  The Sorcerer's Apprentice
  Tamara Drew
  The Twilight Saga: The Eclipse
  William Kuntsler: Destroying the Universe

     2 1/2 star films:
  The Art of the Steal
  Barking Island (short)
  Cairo Time
  Casino Jack and the United States of Money
  Clash of the Titans
  The Company Men
  Coyote Falls (short)
  The Exploding Girl
  Green Zone
  La Mission
  Percy Jackson and the New Olympians
  Prince of Persia
  Smash His Camera
  Tron: Legacy
  Valentine's Day

     The lists get shorter from here on out.  I try to avoid films of less than two and a half star quality whenever possible, but a few always sneak through (and one is usually up for an Oscar).  Two star films:
  Alice in Wonderland
  All Good Things
  Death at a Funeral
  Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl
  The Expendables
  Extraordinary Measures
  It's Kind of a Funny Story
  The Last Airbender
  Robin Hood
  The Tourist
  Why Did I Get Married Too

     One and a half star films:
  Cique du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
  The Extra Man
  The Temptation of St. Tony

     One star films:
  Charlie St. Cloud
  Jonah Hex
  The Lost Thing (short)
  Sex and the City 2
     Whew!!!  I'm going to do my utmost to try and see you back here tomorrow for the first three in the rewind.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Five-Day Fade

     Today's at home viewing reviews include a musical rewind to the sixties, a travesty of justice from the seventies, and another of the same from the eighties. Let's hop some decades...

  The Central Park Five - Documentarian Ken Burns is famous mostly for his work on PBS series and specials that have illuminated various topics and times from the history of America.  Apparently, the calling is to be a family affair, because with this film his daughter Sarah joins him as co-director.  The picture tells the story of five black and Latino youths who were convicted (on the flimsiest of evidence) of raping a woman in New York's Central Park in 1989.
     While the story IS heart breaking and thoroughly told, I'm afraid that the movie comes across as a little dry.  Told mostly in straightforward interviews interspersed with vintage footage, there are few of the cinematic flourishes we have come to expect in recent years from feature documentary films.  Also working against the picture are the inevitable comparisons to the Paradise Lost series, which told a similar story in a much more dramatic fashion.  While "Central" does address racial issues not inherent to the West Memphis case, otherwise it mostly covers the same thematic ground...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Any Day Now - In this movie, writer/director Travis Fine takes on the issue of gay adoption through the true life story of a 1970's couple who tried to legally adopt a teen-age boy with Down Syndrome after being granted temporary custody by his negligent mother.  It's not a pretty story, but it is one that is well told.  It does become a tad melodramatic in the final act, but the facts of the case are a true American melodrama.
     The film hinges upon the performances of Alan Cumming and Garrett Dillahunt, who play the lovers Rudy and Paul.  I am most familiar with Alan Cumming in the role of Nightcrawler in the first X-Men film franchise, but his work here is excellent and nuanced.  Rudy is a drag queen and easily the more flamboyant of the two.  Whereas most actors would approach a character like this (complete with over the top cabaret numbers) with broad strokes, Cumming fills Rudy with details and delicate touches that allow him to easily avoid creating a mere caricature.
     Most of you are probably familiar with actor Garrett Dillahunt as the star of the TV show Raising Hope, although he has certainly played a number of smaller roles on the big screen as well. In this film he plays Paul, the closeted assistant DA who gives up everything to be with Rudy and raise Marco with him.  He plays the character with great calm determination, creating a dynamic in which each member of the couple lends their relative strengths to each other.  The viewer never doubts the love between the two, nor the love that they have available for Marco.
     While the complaint could be made that most of the other characters are played as unrepentant villains, this is not so much a flaw in characterization as a reflection upon how far we have come as a society.  During the time in which the action of the film takes place, their attitudes and opinions would easily have been touted as ethically sound.  Looking at them through modern eyes, they seem hopelessly insensitive to both the feelings of the couple and the needs of the child.  Perhaps in another thirty years, the entire issue will seem ridiculous...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Not Fade Away - Writer/director David Chase is probably best known as the creator of The Sopranos television series.  In Not Fade Away he presents us with a different vision of New Jersey as we follow the adventures of several teen-age boys in the 1960's who try to start a rock band.  As a period piece it works quite well with lots of historical milestones filling in the background of the boys' world to keep us rooted in the era.
     The film is also tied to the television show by the presence of James Gandolfini, who plays the main character's father.  His interaction with lead John Maguro forms the basis for most of the film's dramatic highpoints and the two have excellent onscreen chemistry.  In fact, Maguro is quite excellent throughout and the main reason for seeing the picture.  His rendition of "Time is On My Side" is actually a little inspired.
     My biggest complaint with the movie is that the narration is delivered by Maguro's character's younger sister, who is largely uninvolved in the action of the film, and would have in fact been unaware of most of the story as it was happening.  One can assume that her brother filled her in later, but that of course skews the whole story to his perceptions.  A small complaint, but one that bothered me nonetheless...4 of 5 stars.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Froggy's 13 Day Memorial Day Film Festival

     I'm a day late on this one but it is time for another of my Holiday Film Festivals, this time celebrating Memorial Day.  While it's easy for many of us to think of this holiday as merely an excuse for a long week-end, it was intended to honor those who have lost lives or been gravely injured in service to our country.  I have picked thirteen films with this intention in mind.  They DO tend to be centered a little more on films from the last few decades than my previous festivals.  I'm not sure why this is, but this is the list I came up with:

  1. Paths of Glory (1957) - One of director Stanley Kubrick's earliest films, this film tells the story of soldiers who refuse a suicide mission in World War I.  Needless to say, their superiors were not amused.  Besides being an important entry in the Kubrick canon, this is considered one of living legend Kirk Douglas's seminal performances.

  2. Forrest Gump (1994) - It is only during the early part of director Robert Zemeckis's epic of late twentieth century America that we see Forrest as a soldier, but the loss of his friend Bubba during Vietnam influences the events of the rest of his life.  The picture also presents a pretty vivid picture of how the war affected all Americans.  Besides that, Tom Hanks gives a power house (and Oscar winning) performance, alongside such luminaries as Sally Field, Robyn Wright & Gary Sinise.

  3. Saving Private Ryan (1998) - And of course, you can't discuss Tom Hanks and war movies without mentioning this modern classic which reset the bar for realism in combat sequences.  Steven Spielberg proves once again that he can handle ANY genre with an amazing cast that also includes Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti and Dennis Farina.

  4. The Thin Red Line (1998) - Saving Private Ryan wasn't the only film about soldiers in World War II that was up for Best Picture in 1998.  It went head to head with this Terrence Malick production.  A very different sort of movie about war, "Line" is very introspective, with limited dialogue.  It DOES, however, boast a tremendous cast that includes Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Jared Leto, John Travolta, George Clooney & Nick Stahl.  I promise it's a little more accessible than Tree of Life.

  5. Private Benjamin (1980) - This picture from director Howard Zieff isn't so much about soldiers falling in battle, as it is about women in the armed forces finally rising to their feet, but this list desperately needed some comedic relief.  This little gem from the early eighties should fit the bill nicely.  It was up for three Oscars (impressive for ANY comedy) including a Best Actress nod for producer/star Goldie Hawn whose career was thusly made.

  6. Restrepo (2010) - And we snap right back to the dark realities of warfare with perhaps the most well known documentary on the subject so far in the twenty first century.  Made famous by the "death in the line of duty" suffered by documentarian Tim Hetherington not long after the film's release, it tells the story of a platoon of soldier's in one of the most dangerous valleys in Afghanistan.  They have named their outpost "Restrepo" in honor of a fallen comrade.  Hetherington himself died on location with more soldiers, making his next documentary.

  7. Born on the Fourth of July (1989) - This film tells the true story of Ron Kovic, who (after being paralyzed fighting in Vietnam) becomes an anti-war activist.  The picture was up for eight Oscars, winning two (Director & Editing) and marked a high point in the careers of director Oliver Stone and star Tom Cruise.

  8. The Messenger (2009) - Writer Oren Moverman's directorial debut is not only one of the most criminally under-appreciated movies of 2009, it is also perhaps the MOST perfect choice on this entire list.  It tells the story of two soldiers (Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson) whose assignment is to alert the families of soldiers who have fallen on the field of battle.  Foster's character falls in love with one of the widows (played with typical brilliance by Samantha Morten) and we all take a hard look at grief and coping.  The Messenger should have been up for Best Picture.  It got nods for Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Harrelson)...sigh...

  9. MASH (1970) - Before the TV series broke all kinds of Emmy records, it was inspired by this movie by one of my all time favorite directors: the late, great Robert Altman.  As dark as the show's humor was for television of the time, this reflection of the Korean Conflict was even darker (but still funny).  Boasts a cast including: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall & Rene Auberjonois.

  10. Inglorious Basterds (2009) - Quentin Tarantino's more than slightly cracked vision of World War Two is far from historically accurate, but it is a hell of a lot of irreverent and violent fun.  It is also one of the greatest revenge fantasies ever made, as a platoon of highly skilled Jewish soldiers assassinate Nazis left and right.  The film stars Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender & Daniel Bruhl.  It was up for eight Oscars (including Best Picture) winning Waltz his first Best Supporting Actor trophy.

  11. Apocalypse Now (1979) - Director Francis Ford Coppola's OTHER masterwork, this loose adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness moves the tale of man and his inner demons to the timely location of Vietnam.  Widely considered one of the best War films ever made, its cast includes such notable talents as Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper & Scott Glenn.  This is the flick that the line: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." comes from!

  12. The Hurt Locker (2008) - If I were asked to pick THE modern master of the war movie, you might be surprised that I would quite likely choose a woman.  You won't be surprised if you check out the works of director Katherine Bigelow when teamed with writer Mark Boal.  This first collaboration is the most thoughtful meditation about how the war on terror affects our soldiers psychologically that I have ever seen, and is the little indie flick that kicked Avatar's ass at the Oscars.  It is also the picture that launched Jeremy Renner's career.


  13. Full Metal Jacket (1987) - There's just no way to top off a list that starts with Stanley Kubrick than with the master director's last great film.  This iconic story of the Vietnam War just MIGHT be my favorite war movie ever.  Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio & R. Lee Ermey lead the cast.  The picture is at times touching, funny, and horrifying.  If you have never seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

     And that is that.  Keep those flags waving, and I'll try and step up production of new articles here in the tail end of the month...Froggy. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Price Beyond This Time

     Place Beyond the Pines is a film I have been looking forward to pretty much since I heard it was being made.  I quite enjoyed writer/director Derek Cianfrance's 2010 critical break out Blue Valentine, and the news that he would be re-teaming with "Valentine" star Ryan Gosling in the follow up was just icing on the cake.  I wasn't really sure what to expect out of "Pines".  It seemed from the early buzz and promotionals to have some heavy action elements involved, which seems a pretty far cry from the turgid love story of Blue Valentine.  I shouldn't have worried.  Cianfrance is proving to be a director who is capable of handling a variety of genres and tones with equal ease.
     If I had to pick one signature marker of the man's directing style thus far, it would be his pacing. Cianfrance takes his time to tell a story, creating films that unfurl at a speed much more akin to European dramas than most of their domestic counterparts.  He makes sure to show us more than he tells us, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the characters lives, similar to the way in which we learn about our own.  This helps to create characters that seem less like mere functionaries of the plot, and more like fully realized human beings whose complex choices shape and guide the story.
     Speaking of pacing, editing team Jim Helton and Ron Patane (who return from Blue Valentine) do an exceptional job with this picture.  The story might be a tad slow for the average attention span, but (save for a SLIGHT lag in Act II), it suited me just fine.  Their true triumph, however, lies in the specific cuts they chose to use from scene to scene.  Often the transitional images enhanced each other's impact, or helped to tie the two scenes they bridged together thematically in ways that were notable without being obvious or cheesy.
     I fell in love with the work of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt when I saw Shame, giving him sixth place in my Best of 2011 series for the film (and it was a COMPETITIVE year for cinematographers).  He was an excellent choice for this film.  The images in "Pines" tell us just as much as the words that are spoken, consistent with a storytelling style that values demonstration over exposition.  The cross-country motorcycle ride vistas have set the bar very high for 2013's cinematographers.  Bobbitt's fine lensing will also be visible this year in Steve McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave.  I have no doubt that film will be beautiful to behold as well.
     Place Beyond the Pines is a story told in three acts, with each act focusing on a different actor.  Act One belongs entirely to Ryan Gosling, who is both a great rising movie star and a superbly talented actor.  What makes him a great movie star is partially his good looks, which are astounding.  His "star power" is more rooted, however, in that intangible "X" factor that just makes him infinitely interesting to watch and listen to.  Call it "screen presence", or just "charisma", he has it in spades and it can't be quantified.  It makes you feel consoled by the fact that you got to watch him even when he's in a film of less than stellar quality.  He is a great actor, because he is gifted and obviously serious about his trade.  He has enormous range of characters that he is capable of playing and commits to each role completely.  Here he plays a much more inept role than the uber-capable types he has mostly played of late, a man who tries very hard, but completely in vain.
     Act Two is the story of Bradley Cooper's character.  I regret to inform that this was the weakest of the three parts, in my opinion, the only time in the movie that I wanted the pace to pick up just a hair.  This is very minor complaint, however, as it was still MOSTLY riveting viewing.  Cooper continues to show that he has acting chops which extend FAR beyond broad comedy.  Not only does he demonstrate the ability to handle more serious material in way that is far more understated and naturalistic that what he was asked to do in Silver Linings Playbook, he has NO comedic elements to fall back on.  The actor does an excellent job, even if Gosling has already stolen the show a bit.
     Act Three is set several years after the first two and focuses upon a character played by Dane DeHaan, who first caught my attention last year in Lawless.  In Place Beyond the Pines, he plays a far stronger and independent character immediately impressing upon me that, like the film's other two stars, this young actor has the range and ability to surprise us.  He's a new talent to keep an eye on.
     Of course, the movie also features a whole host of supporting work.  Rose Byrne and Eva Mendes portray the two main women in the story.  Both give respectable turns in somewhat limited roles.  Emory Cohen (best known from TV's Smash) shows signs of possible crossover potential.  Ben Mendelsohn, as usual, proves himself an immensely gifted character actor, and Ray Liotta continues to carve out a niche as the go-to supporting heavy we don't root for.
     I have tried very hard not to give away too much about Place Beyond the Pines' plot, but I would like to say that (like Blue Valentine) it is a story that is rooted very much in showing the changes that are wrought in life over time.  In it, not only are the sins of the fathers revisited on the sons, but they rebound back on the fathers as well.  Derek Cianfrance shows us once again how the choices we make and the things we don't take note of can change our destiny in countless unforeseen and undesired ways...4 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Related Articles:  Innkeepers of Blood and Shame (Shame review), Dark Clouds Beautify "Silver Linings"Elena's Brave Law (Lawless review)