Saturday, March 03, 2007

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

*****
USA

Woody Allen probably made a couple of better films but none of this scope and none with this multitude of brilliantly observed characters - like the hypochondriac who jumps into denial when his brain scans reveal a menacing growth, or the failed actress who asks her sister for a $2,000 loan and casually reasons she hasn't touched drugs in a year. Everybody's timing is flawless, New York is at its warmest and most romantic and the music - ranging from Cole Porter tunes to Puccini - intoxicating.

wr/dir: Woody Allen
ph: Carlo Di Palma
ed: Susan E. Morse
cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher, Julie Kavner, Sam Waterston

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Great Moment (1944)

**½
USA
Probably the beginning of Preston Sturges' decline (though technically he filmed it in 1942 - it was taken out of his hands by the studio and released two years later). His first more or less straight drama, it's a beautifully photographed but otherwise stilted biopic of the dentist who invented anaesthetics - or at least claimed to have done. Several gentlemen in the medical field independently disputed his right to the patent, and the makers of this picture are so crudely and desperately insistent to portray these gentlemen as misguided that you start to get a bit wary.
The script is also credited to Sturges but the dialogue is so wooden it's difficult to accept he could be responsible for it.
wr/dir: Preston Sturges
ph: Victor Milner
cast: Joel McCrea, Betty Field, Harry Carey, William Demarest, Louis Jean Heydt, Julius Tannen, Edwin Maxwell, Porter
Hall

The Illusionist (2006)

**
USA

With a German poolboy's accent and screen presence, Edward Norton creates CGI-assisted optical illusions and wows turn-of-the-century Vienna. But really none of his fame and fortune can satisfy the void left by his first love - taken from him before he reached puberty and brought back over a decade later in the stacked shape of Jessica Biel, promised though she may be to a powerful and psychotic aristocrat. After all this time and volumes of acquired wisdom, muses Norton, "The only mystery I have never solved is why my love for you can never stop." It's how he talks throughout the movie.

wr/dir: Neil Burger
cast: Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

***
UK

A melodrama from a mindset where a married teacher who screws her 15-year-old student is a woman misunderstood, while an aging lonely lesbian is a monstrosity. The Philip Glass score is a dangerous one - it invites you to take the picture seriously. At the same time however, it complements and amplifies the hysteria to a pitch that forces you to sit back and spot the overwhelming silliness of the premise. It helps you understand that it's entirely possible to have fun with the movie if you let the lunacy wash over you and ensure that none of it sticks behind for afterthought.
As the adulteress Cate Blanchett is predictable and flimsy, but as the crazed dyke Judi Dench is unleashed under no pressure to be lovable. The bizarreness of the role encourages her to let loose with it. She remains fiercely committed as ever, but she's also much more creative. She's magnificent.

dir: Richard Eyre
wr: Patrick Marber
cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson, Juno Temple, Emma Kennedy

Lord of War (2005)

***
USA

A slick, entertaining if confused message picture about an arms dealer. Writer-director Andrew Niccol wants to be cool and Funny! but also deep and Serious. He wants to have all the fun you can have with big shiny guns and he wants to enlighten you on how you can't have any fun with big shiny guns.

wr/dir: Andrew Niccol
cast: Nicolas Cage, Ethan Hawke, Ian Holm, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Eamonn Walker, Sammi Rotibi

Casino Royale (2006)

***½
USA/UK/Germany/Czech Republic

Seeing as every screen superhero of late has been getting a down-and-dirty makeover (adopting an earnest, Jung-inflected persona in the process and discarding his sense of humour), it isn't surprising to see the trend befall Mr. Bond. What is surprising is how well it works. The fight sequences are no longer trashily entertaining like big budget musical numbers are - they carry a dramatic urgency. Bond himself is no longer a smarmy aging sleazebag who's surely never had to take a punch - he's steely, he's determined and frighteningly vicious. And even the Bond girl is bestowed a personality not entirely defined in relation to Mr. Bond or her cup size.

dir: Martin Campbell
cast: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Caterina Murino, Simon Abkarian, Jesper Christensen, Ivana Milicevic

Christmas in July (1940)

***½
USA

Preston Sturges' second film, this slapstick comedy with a social conscience counts as a minor one compared to the classics he churned out during the WWII period. It isn't as rich and manic as the best of them, but it is clever and very likable in its own right. Dick Powell plays a $22-a-week clerk who is tricked into believing he has won $25,000 at a slogan contest. Overlapping dialogue ensues.

wr/dir: Preston Sturges
cast: Dick Powell, Ellen Drew, Raymond Walburn, Alexander Carr, William Demarest, Ernest Truex, Franklin Pangborn, Georgia Caine, Ferike Boros

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

***
USA

In his directorial debut, Tommy Lee Jones also stars as a noble, laconic, distant-but-secretly-cuddly would-be-lone-ranger-who-adores-his-buddy-but-never-to-his-face. And he hacks at it with a grace and dignity that belies the trademark didacticism of a Guillermo Arriaga script in which the villain does little other than beat the living shit out of destitute immigrants and the women who are not destitute immigrants have only the choice of being needy whores with a heart of gold.

dir: Tommy Lee Jones
wr: Guillermo Arriaga
cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, Julio Cedillo, Dwight Yoakam, January Jones, Melissa Leo, Vanessa Bauche, Levon Helm

Hard Candy (2005)

***
USA


A glossy, nervy chamber piece about a prospective paedophile and a pubescent avenging angel. Writer Brian Nelson and director David Slade try their nastiest to get you writhing and retching in your seat. You hit the point where you sincerely wonder why you're still watching. It isn't because of the sassy, smarmy dialogue or any relevance the movie may have to child abuse in the real world (it has none). It's because the very young Ellen Page is so distressingly, hypnotically adept at floating between trembling precociousness and maniacal intensity.

dir: David Slade
cast: Patrick Wilson, Ellen Page, Sandra Oh, Jennifer Holmes, Gilbert John

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Little Children (2006)

**½
USA


Kate Winslet has never been as limp and predictable as she is here, playing an adulterous suburban housewife, who mid-way through the film delivers a symbolic monologue on the woman-empowering attributes of Emma Bovary. She also gets to have several unconvincing sex scenes with Patrick Wilson, who spends the movie looking confused and uncomfortable at having to show off his recently toned, glistening torso. For two hours we watch these people repeatedly fuck up their and everybody else's lives in an effort to free themselves from a feeling of smothering brought on by circumstances increasingly beyond their control. Then in the final few minutes they each experience a random epiphany that magically restores them to a state of contentment - almost bliss - and entirely negates any hint of authenticity you thought you may have spotted in their characters.

dir: Todd Field
wr: Todd Field, Tom Perrotta
cast: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley