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Hollywood’s Best at Last?

November 10th, 2010 No comments

Earlier this year, I wrote in For Bards Blog about Joe Queenan’s contention that 2010 was the worst year for movies ever. While For Bards Blog took a more cautious approach, citing box office champs “Inception” and “Toy Story 3” as quality successes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Queenan may have had a point. Despite the successes of a few films, quality pickings at the local multiplex or arthouse cinema have been few and far between. For every thought-provoking and poignant independent film like “Never Let Me Go,” or pedigreed Hollywood release like “The Social Network,” there are multiple go-for-the-quick-money, Hollywood-factory releases like “Salt,” “Jackass 3-D,” “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” or “Robin Hood.” And it’s no accident that so many kids’ movies are released in 3-D, since 3-D simply increases ticket prices, strengthening the studio’s bottom lines.

But there may be a glimmer of hope for serious filmgoers. The holiday film season is upon us, and with it comes a lot of big-budget and high-profile fare, including a 3-D sequel to Disney’s 1982 classic “Tron,” “Tron: Legacy,” along with Danny Boyle’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” the harrowing “127 Hours.” Action films are represented by Twentieth Century Fox’s “Unstoppable,” which goes head-to-head with Universal Pictures’ “Skyline,” in mid-November, but one week later the first part of the final Harry Potter adventure bows; “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)” faces the latest Russell Crowe adventure, “The Next Three Days,” in which Crowe attempts to break his wrongly-accused wife out of prison. In December, the final film based on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” will open opposite a Ben AffleckChris Cooper dramatic comedy about corporate downsizing, “The Company Men.” Also opening the same week is “The Tempest,” a gender-bender version of William Shakespeare’s play, directed by Julie Taymor (“Across the Universe”), starring Helen Mirren. Another opener that week is the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie starrer “The Tourist,” which combines Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) with equally-honored scribes Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects.”)

As Christmas nears, the mood lightens, and comedies enter the fray. The week of December 22, a 3-D retelling of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” opens with Jack Black in the title role, along with “Little Fockers,” the third go-round in the “Meet the Parents” series, featuring Oscar winners Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand as well as Oscar nominee Harvey Keitel. Also opening just before Christmas is “Somewhere,” writer-director Sofia Coppola’s insider Hollywood drama. Also, Paramount has  announced it is moving “True Grit,” the Joel and Ethan Coen re-telling of the Charles Portis novel, forward a few days from its originally-scheduled Christmas release date. Evidently the feeling at Paramount is that they’ve got a strong contender on their hands with last year’s Oscar-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, in the Rooster Cogburn role, (which won the original film’s Cogburn, John Wayne, his only Oscar) and hopes are a few extra days will help fuel Oscar buzz and the film’s bottom line.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… There’s a new James L. Brooks film, “How Do You Know,” coming out in mid-December, featuring Brooks’ good-luck charm Jack Nicholson in a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd. For the serious moviegoer, there’s “Rabbit Hole,” a marital drama starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about the aftermath of a traumatic loss. And let’s not forget “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” a love-tale between prison convicts Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, or David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, “Fair Game” with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, “For Colored Girls,” “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman and “Love and other Drugs,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, in which a pharmaceutical rep falls for a Parkinson’s patient.

This doesn’t even touch the vast number of independent and ‘art’ films that will fill the theaters late this year. So – was 2010 the ‘worst movie year ever?’ It’s impossible to tell – let’s see what it still has to offer…

Finally, “Casino Jack,” the last film by director George Hickenlooper, who died last week at the age of 47, will open December 17. Based on the twisted tale of crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the film is highly regarded by those who have already seen it, and only underscores the loss of director Hickenlooper at such a young age. More will follow about Hickenlooper, who I first wrote about 30 years ago when he was a student at Yale, soon in For Bards Blog.

Movies That Will Stay With You

August 2nd, 2010 No comments

In a summer of mostly instantly unforgettable movies (anybody remember “Sex and the City 2” or “Robin Hood”? I didn’t think so), I began to think about older movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me – because their stories and plots were so compelling, or because the films themselves were so thought-provoking. Most of them, if not all, are available on Netflix or Blockbuster.com, and if you seek out an alternative to today’s formulaic fare, you might want to check out one of these memorable flicks. But be warned – ‘different’ or ‘memorable’ aren’t always ‘more fun.’ Some of these movies are downers, truth be told. But they’re all affecting – and effective. If you want to stretch your cinematic boundaries, give one (or more) of these films a try.

  1. “Nobody Knows”  This Japanese film from writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on a true story of a Japanese mother whose efforts to hide her children from her landlord and neighbors take on tragic proportions. A ‘Home Alone‘ cautionary-tale of the first order, this film has haunted me ever since I saw it – 2 years ago. Because it remains so affecting, it will probably be a while until I watch it again, but I recommend it to anyone who loves good movies – with a caveat that parents of young children shouldn’t watch it with them (it’s rated PG-13), and that it is as troubling as it is fulfilling, movie-wise.
  2. “The Passenger”  This film, I feel, represents the late Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni at the peak of his career. With earlier arthouse hits like “L’Avventura” and “Blow Up,” he cemented his place in world cinema. In “The Passenger,” which employs his trademark brand of nihilistic plotting, a reporter (played by Jack Nicholson) trades places with a dead arms dealer, with predictably ambiguous results. The film represents a nifty travelogue of sorts, but the movie’s ending will leave you puzzling for a long time.
  3. The 400 Blows”  Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical film (and the first of his ‘Antoine Dionel’ features) is a gritty, no-holds-barred retelling of his own wayward youth. As a foot-soldier director in the first wave of the French ‘New Wave,’ Truffaut crafted a kinetic, homage-laden film which revealed his affinity to work with young actors, and which featured the most famous ‘foreign film’ ‘freeze frame ending’ in cinema history. Truffaut and Jeanne-Pierre Leaud would go on to make at least 5 other movies which deal with the Doinel/Truffaut character.
  4. “The Wicker Man”  Not the disappointing 2006 remake from  Neil LaBute, but rather the 1973 original feature film written by Anthony Shaffer and starrring the late Edward Woodward. A ‘lost classic’ for a number of years, “The Wicker Man” resurfaced a decade or so after its initial theatrical run. Although the 2006 remake did its best, Woodward’s final scene in the original is one of haunting realization and bravura acting, and stays with the viewer long after the credits have played.
  5. “Seconds”  This 1966 black-and-white cult classic from director John Frankenheimer (“Ronin”) is a disturbing and prescient look into the world of “Nip/Tuck” some 30 years later… Rock Hudson plays a middle-aged businessman who learns of a way to ‘do-over’ his life, courtesy of a super-secret organization that can make you look younger, offer a great career and even jettison your old identity… but at a hefty price.
  6. “Night Moves”  Arthur Penn’s 1975 film about private dick Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is an existential film noir which deals with themes of self-worth, sensuality and self-control. Penn’s touch is evident from his emphasis on young actress Melanie Griffith’s sexuality to the film’s utterly 1970s ‘director’s ending.’ I suspect if this picture were made in a later decade, the studio would’ve forced Penn to shoot multiple endings for the DVD release… (By the way, his 1976 film “The Missouri Breaks” is worthy of an extra look, but keep in mind that next-door-neighbors – in this case Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando – do not best co-stars make…)
  7. “The Blair Witch Project”   OK, don’t laugh. This film was one of the first ‘viral marketing’ efforts which actually took root. Since then there have been a LOT of imitators, but with the exception of “Paranormal Activity,” no one has come close (including the ‘Blair Witch ‘ sequel) to the success of this film’ssuccess.  First-person point-of-view may be trite, but it WORKS… As a result, this low-budgeted film gets points for profit – and being the first at the trough…
  8. “Paths of Glory”  Two words: Stanley Kubrick. It’s early Kubrick at that… and the result is fantastic. Watch this film all the way through and tell me you are not surprised… “Paths of Glory”: features several great twists and superior performances; not the least of which is a sequence involving a frightened female German singer in the movie’s disturbing – but eventually cathartic – final scene. Although billed as Susanne Christiane, she became better known as Christiane Kubrick – the director’s wife.

If you recognize a common thread through these films, it’s that they are the product of bygone days. It’s not that older films are better, but sometimes more mature filmmakers can recognize  a human condition that is timeless. They are also – in most cases – the films of my youth. And that makes them even more valuable. There’s not a cookie-cutter movie here – they are all originals.

Why not give one a try?