There is a valid explanation for why things have been quiet on the blog of late…and if anyone’s up to mailing it in to me, I’ll gladly spring for postage. All seriousness aside, I had a couple of Radio Spirits projects that needed my immediate attention, plus I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to turn in reviews at ClassicFlix in a timely manner; two of the recent “oldies” that I’ve watched are Union Depot (1932—a great little pre-Code) and Private Hell 36 (1954), which you can access by clicking on the links.
Ever since U-Verse came in like a thief in the night and yanked our Encore package I’ve been clearing the Encore movies off the thing…though since that channel doesn’t letterbox a great many of their offerings, this didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would. I’ve actually gotten better regarding their pan-and-scan presentations (I don’t sulk nearly as much as I did in the past), but I do have to draw the line on occasion: for example, Encore-Suspense aired a French film at the beginning of February that’s been on my radar for a while, With a Friend Like Harry (2000)…yet when I finally got around to peeping it I noticed within minutes it was the dubbed version, so I quietly eliminated it from the DVR.
(Also, too: Sundance aired The Ides of March  a couple of weeks ago, and when I tried to watch this Wednesday night this is the message that greeted me before the movie unfolded: “The following film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen, to run in the time allotted and edited for content.” Oh, I’m so sorry…but thanks for playing our game. We have some lovely parting gifts for you, including a home version of Ivan Watches Fairly Recent Movies.)
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) recently turned up on the Encore Action channels and I sat down with them because I had a rather fuzzy memory of the two features; I knew I had already seen them (probably rented them from Netflix when I still had the service), and while I remembered most of the first film some of the stuff in the second was foreign to me. (I think I might have dozed off during Vol. 2 the first time.) I’m not a slavish Tarantino disciple yet I enjoyed both movies; admittedly, I’m more partial to the earlier entries in his oeuvre, like Reservoir Dogs (1992). I also recorded The Dead Zone (1983) from Encore Suspense; for some odd reason I thought I had seen this one but as it turned out I had not (I read the book, which might be why I thought I had). One of the better movies taken from Stephen King novels, in my opinion. Also from the Encore menu:
The Human Stain (2003) – An adaptation of the Philip Roth best seller that stars Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk, a professor and dean of a small liberal arts college whose career crumbles before his very eyes after he’s accused of making racist remarks in the classroom. His wife Iris (Phyllis Newman) dies shortly after the scandal unfolds, and Coleman blames her passing on the stress caused by the events; he befriends an author, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), and asks him to write his story while at the same time Coleman’s beginning a relationship with a young woman Fauna Farley (Nicole Kidman). Their affair comes under fire from Fauna’s ex (Ed Harris), a mentally unbalanced war vet, and the disapproving faculty members from the college.
My interest in Stain was piqued a while back when I perused an article at Salon addressing the controversy as to whether Roth based the Silk character on Anatole Broyard, a one-time New York Times literary editor—I won’t go into the full details on Broyard for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the novel or film (because it’ll give a lot of it away). After watching the movie version, however, it sounds like the book might be better; I’ll throw in with the majority critical opinion that the film doesn’t quite gel because of the miscasting of the leads (I wasn’t able to invest any interest in the relationship between Hopkins and Kidman, a major portion of the plot). I’m not sorry I spent time with Stain, but I’d be hesitant to recommend it to anyone since it really didn’t work for me.
We Own the Night (2007) – Joaquin Phoenix is Bobby Green, a young man who manages a New York City nightclub for a Russian furrier named Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov)…though Bobby’s actual last name is Grusinsky (the “Green” is his mother’s maiden name)—he keeps that on the QT because he doesn’t want his friends or the people who employ him to know that he’s the son of a NYPD deputy chief, played by Robert Duvall. Bobby’s brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is also a cop, and has recently been promoted to captain; when Bobby stops by to celebrate his bro’s rise in the ranks—accompanied by his girlfriend Amada Juarez (Eva Mendes)—he’s told by the Grusinsky clan that they’ve got their eye on Buzhayev’s nephew Vadim (Alex Veadov), a drug lord who’s planning on bringing in a bodacious shipment of product…and they want Bobby’s cooperation, since Vadim is a club regular. Bobby says “Include me out”—but when Joe is nearly brought down in a shootout involving Vadim’s mob, our hero has a change of heart and agrees to help trap him by infiltrating his set-up.
This first-rate suspenser was written and directed by James Gray, whose previous films Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000) are also crime tales set in the Big Apple; stars Phoenix and Wahlberg appeared in Yards, and Night was a labor of love for the two thesps, who produced the film. I’ll watch Duvall in just about anything, so I was already pre-sold on this one going in; I also enjoyed seeing the late Tony Musante in a small role (Musante was in Yards as well). If you’ve watched as many crime thrillers as I have you’ll figure out the “twist” halfway through but it’s still a journey well worth your time. (And I say this as someone who just doesn’t care for Wahlberg, whom I still haven’t forgiven for Good Vibrations.)
Sundance was bought out by the AMC/IFC folks in 2008, and sadly this means that they now interrupt their flicks with commercial breaks as well as larding up their schedule with “original series” (they also have about six or eight hours of Law & Order running every day—I still haven’t been able to figure that one out). The movies appear to be uncut and intact for the most part (that Ides of March thing must have been an outlier) and the next batch of films were watched either on Sundance or sister IFC (which I remember its glory days as a commercial-free channel as well).
From Hell (2001) – I tried to talk Mom into watching this one, a horror film-police procedural based on a graphic novel series (I remember when we called these comic books) by Alan Moore (who later disavowed the film version, calling Johnny Depp’s interpretation of the inspector an “absinthe-swigging dandy”) and Eddie Campbell…but she’s more intractable on matters cinematic than I am, and she has a hard-and-fast rule in that she will not watch anything Depp is in. (Which probably explains why she still hasn’t opened The Lone Ranger  DVD she got for Christmas.) I’m not necessarily down with Depp either (I find him a little too precious) but I can’t deny that this is one of his better showcases; he’s a psychic cop investigating that bit of unpleasantness involving Jack the Ripper, with Heather Graham as a “bangtail” (slang courtesy of Robbie Coltrane, who’s aces as Depp’s sidekick) what’s caught his eye.
True to its graphic novel origins, From Hell is in-your-face flashy and the Brothers Hughes (Albert and Allen, the auteurs who brought you Menace II Society  and Dead Presidents ) occasionally overdo it with the stylistics…but despite Depp and Graham (the actress’ appeal has always eluded me, and she’s a little too beautiful to be a prostitute) I thought the movie was pretty solid even though the identity of “Springhill Jack” kind of stretches credibility a tad. (Not to give too much away, but I also liked how the plot of From Hell is similar to 1979’s Murder by Decree, which pits Sherlock Holmes against the Ripper.) Coltrane is great, and you’ll never convince me that Ian Richardson (who starred in the British version of House of Cards) didn’t read the first few lines of his character’s part (as Depp and Coltrane’s superior) and declare: “Henry Daniell, I should think.”
Batman Begins (2005) – More comic book…sorry…graphic novel cinema as Christopher Nolan reboots the Batman franchise with Christian Bale as The Caped Crusader in a movie that was summed up by the better half of my BBFF Stacia as follows: “It wouldn’t stop beginning!” I don’t regret watching this but it really wasn’t my cup of tea—it’s way too long, and crammed with stunts and noisy explodiations where stuff blows up real good. Michael Caine was funny.
The Wackness (2008) – High school grad Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) starts dealing drugs to earn money for his financially-strapped parents; his father (David Wohl) has botched a financial deal and the family is in danger of being evicted. Luke has also struck up an unlikely bond with therapist Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley) who counsels him in exchange for weed; their friendship, however, is jeopardized by a romance between Luke and Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).
This loosey-goosey coming-of-age comedy-drama really struck a chord with me; I liked Peck’s performance as the seemingly-stoned and vulnerable Luke, who’s sincere about his attraction to Thirlby’s Steph and is unaware that she’s going to break his heart. (I also giggled because he sells his wares out of an ice cream wagon—that’s the way Cheech & Chong would have done it…) It’s an unpretentious debut effort from writer-director Jonathan Levine, who populates the movie with likable characters (even the ones who do unlikable things) and threads the film with a memorable hip-hop/rap soundtrack. I enjoyed the eclectic casting in this one, too: Jane Addams as a reclusive client, Mary-Kate Olsen (how rude!) as a hippie, Method Man as Luke’s connection and Famke Janssen as Kingsley’s wife (the two of them are having marital difficulties not unlike Luke’s ma and pa). See this one if you get the opportunity.
The Informant! (2009) – Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book about Mark “Corky” Whitacre, an Archer-Midland-Daniels exec who brought the lysine price-fixing conspiracy to light in the 1990s by ratting out the company to the FBI, becomes an absurdist satire in the hands of director Steven Soderbergh. Matt Damon plays Whitacre, a whistle-blower who seems to be doing the right thing by tattling to the Feds but later turns out to have a few skeletons in his own closet.
Soderbergh’s decision to play a lot of the events detailed in this movie as comical is an interesting one only because what happens with ADM and Whitacre isn’t all that funny; still, it’s undeniably entertaining despite Damon’s character being a bit of a cypher (his stream-of-consciousness monologues are hooty). The most enjoyable aspect is that Soderbergh cast a lot of stand-up comedians in major and minor roles: Joel McHale (pre-Community), Allan Havey (haven’t seen this guy since he appeared on Keith Olbermann’s show many moons ago) and Paul F. Tompkins are FBI agents, and Patton Oswalt and Rick Overton are also on hand. Best of all: the presence of Tom and Dick Smothers (though they’re cast in separate roles in the film).
A Single Man (2009) – Before winning his Best Actor Oscar for The King’s Speech (2010), actor Colin Firth got a nod the previous year for his amazing performance as the titular character in a film based on Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel. Firth plays George Falconer, a British university professor struggling to deal with the death of his architect lover Jim (Matthew Goode)—as a day in his life unfolds, memories of his life with Jim are presented in flashback while Falconer seriously contemplates committing suicide.
As the description probably tips you off, this is not particularly a “date movie”…but this quiet, penetrating film rewards those who are patient with important lessons on living life to the fullest. Directed by former fashion designer Tom Ford, Man nicely captures the feel of Southern California circa 1962 and features first-rate turns from Goode, Julianne Moore (as Firth’s longtime gal pal) and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler Firth encounters outside a liquor store. But it’s Firth’s performance that makes this one so heart-achingly good; he lost to Jeff Bridges (for Crazy Heart) but just between you, me and the lamppost he was robbed.
Margin Call (2011) – Writer-director J.C. Chandor won the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best First Feature prize (as well as the Robert Altman Award) for this treatise on the early days of the financial 2008 financial crisis; an investment bank (unnamed in the film, but my money’s on Lehman Brothers) is downsizing employees, including the exec in charge of risk management (Stanley Tucci). Tucci hands one of his people (Zachary Quinto) a USB drive as he’s going out the door, telling him it’s a project he’s been working on…and the curious employee soon learns that the company’s over-leverage in M.B.S. (mortgage-backed securities) is going to send the firm on a runaway bobsled to Hell unless a plan of action is put into effect by the higher-ups.
Margin Call accomplishes the impossible: it generates suspense from a situation involving the employees of an institution that I normally would have greeted with complete ennui (“Members of the one-percent shitting their pants about a potential financial crash for which they’re responsible—let me check the Care-O-Meter…”). That’s not to say that Call doesn’t have its defects; if you have Kevin Spacey on hand, why you would want to make him the “good guy” is beyond my comprehension. (Because I’ve also seen the first film in the Star Trek reboot, I have trouble thinking of Quinto—also one of Call’s producers—as anybody but the young Mr. Spock. “Set phasers to sell!”) Jeremy Irons is amazing as the CEO who’s rather nonchalant about the possibility of torpedoing the world economy, and there are also fine performances from Tucci, Simon Baker (as The Mentalist, shouldn’t he have seen this coming?), Paul Bettany and Demi Moore.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) – I’ve saved the best for last: actress Elizabeth Olsen won critical plaudits for her phenomenal performance as the title character—a vulnerable young woman struggling to make peace with her sister (Sarah Paulson) when she moves in with sis and her new husband (Hugh Dancy). She’s not told either of them why she’s been off the grid for two years; she fell in with a group that informally call themselves “The Family”…and while you can take the girl of the cult, you can’t necessarily take the cult out of the girl. The experience has left some serious psychological scars on Olsen, and jeopardizes her new life with her hosts because some serious delusional paranoia has started to set in.
I almost didn’t sit down with this one because I mistook it for a Woody Allen film by the title; “Martha” is the real name of Olsen’s character, “Marcy May” and “Marlene” aliases she uses with the group she’s staying with (a cult that’s more Manson than Moonie). Martha Marcy May Marlene is the powerful first feature written and directed by Sean Durkin (he won a Best Dramatic Directing Award at the Sundance Festival), who got a bit of criticism from the late Roger Ebert for his use of chronological shifts (the film goes back-and-forth from present-day events to those that happened in the past)—“In a serious film, there is no payoff for trickery.” I say bah and feh—Durkin’s use of the device just serves to heighten the film’s brooding paranoiac despair, and while some may not take to the movie’s depressing tone it’s one of the most emotionally rewarding I’ve seen in quite a while (the fact that the estranged Martha and Lucy are simply unable to connect will gnaw at you). The ambiguous ending to the film is the perfect capper.
Before I return to the screening room for more movies, I thought I would mention another blogathon that’s on the horizon: The Great Villain Blogathon, which will allow movie bloggers to boo and hiss their favorite cinematic bad guys in an event that will take place from April 20-26 and will be sponsored by Ruth at Silver Screenings, Karen at shadowsandsatin, and Kristina at Speakeasy. (And by the number “2”.) I told Ruth to deal Thrilling Days of Yesteryear in, and on April 22 my entry will be on the delightfully diabolical Henry Brandon in his dual “Silas Barnaby” showcases of Babes in Toyland (1934; a.k.a. March of the Wooden Soldiers) and Our Gang Follies of 1938 (1937). (I think this one is going to be a lot of fun.)
I mentioned at the beginning of this month that TDOY had made commitments to other blogathons…but that in some instances I was still trying to decide what topics would be addressed. Everything has been finalized now, and here’s what I’ll be contributing:
Big Stars on the Small Screen (March 20-21, sponsored by How Sweet it Was): Gunsmoke – Bette Davis in “The Jailer” (10/01/66)
The Diamonds & Gold Blogathon (April 12-13, sponsored by Caftan Woman and Wide Screen World): Harry Davenport in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
And that just about covers it…next time on the blog, a look at what’s headed our way on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ once 31 Days of Oscar packs up its tent.