Friday, June 13, 2014

Cinematic Vegetables (Part two in a continuing series)

I’ll say this for AT&T U-Verse: in the short period of time since we switched to the service in January, the House of Yesteryear has been blessed with two, count ‘em, two free preview weekends of HBO/Cinemax.  (One of them is currently in progress this weekend, and next weekend we’ll get our second look at Showtime/The Movie Channel.)  Therefore, my message to Charter would be: suck it.

But this situation is not without its perils: because I have been DVR’ing a buttload of movies that I either want to watch or probably should watch (the vegetables part), I am in danger of filling up the allotted amount of time afforded on that Total DVR-For-Life© contraption…so every now and then I have to make a concerted effort to watch movies in order to free up space.  Without further ado, a sampling of the films I’ve peeped recently.

Any Given Sunday (1999) – I know I make an awful lot of fun of Al Pacino on the blog (Hoo hah!) but despite his tendency to chew the scenery (as if it were nicotine gum and he desperately needs a fix) he’s still a mesmerizing actor.  He leads an all-star cast in this Oliver Stone flick as the coach of a fictional professional football team struggling to make the playoffs; chiefly among Pacino’s problems is the loss of his star quarterback (Dennis Quaid), whom he replaces with a rookie player (Jamie Foxx) with an ego that soon requires a second locker in the players’ dressing room.

In addition to Pacino, Quaid and Foxx, Sunday also features Cameron Diaz, James Woods, LL Cool J, Matthew Modine, John C. McGinley, Charlton Heston, Ann-Margret, Lauren Holly, Bill Bellamy, Lela Rochon, Aaron Eckhart and Elizabeth Berkley…not to mention former NFL players Jim Brown (a great performance as the team’s defensive coordinator) and Lawrence Taylor.  (There are cameos and small contributions from the likes of folks such as Dick Butkus, Barry Switzer, Johnny Unitas, etc.)  In fact, I think the only reason why you and I weren’t in this one is that we turned off the snooze alarm on the day of auditions.  Sunday could have used some trimming, but I was honestly surprised by how engaging the movie was (and I’m not a football fan by any stretch of the imagination); always nice to see Ann-Margret (she and my dad went to different schools together) and I couldn’t stop chuckling at the scenes between Woods and Pacino, because both actors have two buttons: on and off.  My only objection to the film lies in the ending, which I thought was a little nasty (though part of me would argue that it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t want to wrap everything up in a nice pink bow).

In America (2002) – Director Jim Sheridan is best known for his multiple collaborations with actor Daniel Day-Lewis: the Academy Award-winning My Left Foot (1989), In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997).  The director was inspired by events in his own family’s life for In America, with actor Paddy Considine as the Lewis surrogate in this one (though he kind of reminded me of Stephen Rea’s kid brudder).  Paddy’s an aspiring actor who takes his family across the Canadian border into the U.S. on a travel visa and decides to stick around in Manhattan.  The family’s struggle to adjust to their new environs is made complicated by the memory of Considine and wife Samantha Morton’s two-year-old son, who succumbed to cancer, and their friendship with a reclusive neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) dying of AIDS.

I liked In America…but I would have liked it more if I hadn’t watched the edited version (I can’t remember if I saw this on IFC or Sundance; usually they give me a heads-up on this sort of thing); I suspected something was not quite kosher because the narrative jumped around a bit (with regards to Hounsou’s scenes) and because I put the closed-captioning on at night, the onscreen dialogue didn’t quite match the captioning in the profanity department.  I’m not sure if I’d watch it again in an unedited version but I thought both Morton and Hounsou were sensational; I did, however, marvel at the fact that once the family enters the country illegally nothing else happens with regards to that issue.

The Dreamers (2003) – Against the background of the tumultuous student riots in Paris in 1968, an American student (Michael Pitt) obsessed with cinema strikes up a friendship with a like-minded French girl (Eva Green) and her brother (Louis Garrel).  In the course of the narrative, it’s revealed that bro and sis have a very unusual relationship.  I mean tres unusual.  Let me put it this way: this movie was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, who also gave us Last Tango in Paris (1973) and Luna (1979).  (Just so you know what to expect.)

The content of this one will no doubt be off-putting to a lot of folks (there are two versions, an R and an NC-17); it’s based on Gilbert Adair’s novel The Holy Innocents, which features a great deal of homosexuality (Pitt’s student not only gets it on with Green’s character but brother Louis as well) that Bertolucci ultimately vetoed from the film.  That might be why The Dreamers ends up so dissatisfying; the menage a trois between the three youths is missing a menage.  Film fanatics might take to this; it features a lot of conversations about both classic movies and Nouvelle Vague films, with generous clips from both.

National Treasure (2004) – I taped this one for my mother because it’s just the sort of popcorn flick she and my father thrive on; Nicolas Cage plays a historian and cryptologist who’s stumbled onto his very own Da Vinci Code—a treasure map that’s printed on the back of the Declaration of Independence.  Assisted by Jon Voight (as his pop), sidekick Justin Bartha and reluctant Diane Kruger, a curator at the National Archives, Cage’s Benjamin Franklin Gates races against time and worthy evil opponent Sean Bean to discover the location of a cache of gold hidden by Freemasons during the Revolutionary War.  (It’s all based on sworn testimony—can you prove it didn’t happen?)

There are certain movies that you just know going in are going to produce a heckuva lot of eye-rolling—and while I’m guilty of being snobbish about this sort of flick I really shouldn’t be when you take into consideration how many serials I’ve watched in the time I’ve been on this planet.  National Treasure is goofy, but somehow it works because Cage and the rest of the cast refuse to take it too seriously (my mother is not a Cage devotee, but she enjoyed the hell out of his deadpan performance).  Harvey Keitel is the icing on the cake as the Fed on Cage’s trail (“You really don’t understand the concept of a bargaining chip…”).

The Constant Gardener (2005) – John le Carré’s 2001 thriller tells the tale of low-level British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), whose activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is murdered during his being posted in Kenya.  Quayle soon suspects more sinister motives behind her killing, and his subsequent investigation reveals a stupefying conspiracy between the British government and a powerful pharmaceutical concern conducting drug tests on the native population.

Nominated for four Academy Awards and winning one for Weisz’s amazing performance as Tessa Quayle, The Constant Gardener was a pure joy from start to finish—scripted by Jeffrey Caine (one of the Oscar nominees) and directed by Fernando Meirelles.  The movie wisely chooses to show us the relationship of Justin and Tessa (whose passionate politics draws out her somewhat stuffy spouse) in flashbacks—making the events that follow so heartbreakingly tragic.  Gardener also spotlights superb supporting performances from Danny Huston (John’s son), Bill Nighy (as a cold, calculating government official), Hubert Koundé and Pete Postlethwaite.

The Painted Veil (2006) – After watching Infamous (2006) earlier this year, I didn’t think I’d see Toby Jones in another movie anytime soon…but he’s one of several supporting players in The Painted Veil, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel, and flipping fantastic as a jaded deputy commissioner who’s shacked up with an Asian concubine in the province of Mei-tan-fu.  He’s the neighbor of Walter and Kitty Fane (Edward Norton, Naomi Watts), a newly arrived British couple; Walter is a bacteriologist working tirelessly to eradicate a cholera epidemic in the area while wife Kitty is along for the ride as punishment for her dalliance with vice consul Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber).  The Fane’s experiences in Mei-tan-fu have the unexpected consequence of repairing their message rather than completely destroying it.

I’ve made no secret here on the blog that the works of Mr. Maugham aren’t my cup of Lipton’s…but I genuinely enjoyed Veil—I think this might have something to do with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and actor Norton’s reworking of the material (which differs greatly from both Maugham’s novel and the 1934 film with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall).  Smartly directed by John Curran (brought onto the project by Watts, who had worked with him on 2004’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore), Veil also features a nice turn by TDOY goddess Dame Diana Rigg, still smoking hot even if she’s an elderly nun.  (I know, I’m a sick individual.)  Also, too: is there anyone better at playing rat bastards than Liev Schreiber?

Wordplay (2006) – Quirky documentary (by Patrick Creadon) pays homage to The New York Times’ heralded crossword puzzle, the purview of editor Will Shortz since 1993, and its formidable fan base that comprises such celebs as Jon Stewart, former President Bill Clinton and Amy Ray & Emily Saliers (the Indigo Girls).  The second half of the film centers on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (circa 2005), with profiles on some of the ACPT’s entrants.  I know, Wordplay doesn’t sound too particularly cinematic…but crossword aficionados will eat it up with a spoon, and the movie even manages to provide drama and suspense for those of us who might shrug and ask “Seriously?”  Short and sweet, and definitely worth a look.

Snow Cake (2006) – Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) gives free-spirited Vivienne Freeman (Emily Hampshire) a lift on his way to Winnipeg…and a half-hour into the movie, a freak automobile accident kills the young hitchhiker while Alex emerges unscathed.  Wracked with grief (we eventually learn that Hughes lost a son in the same manner—a son he’d never met), Alex takes it upon himself to convey his condolences to Vivienne’s autistic mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver)…and finds himself staying longer than he intended when he agrees to finalize the arrangements for Vivienne’s funeral (as well as romancing Linda’s next-door neighbor, played by Carrie-Anne Moss).

A movie that nicely blends tragedy and comedy (there are some deadpan moments in this film that defy you not to laugh out loud), Snow Cake is a first-rate indie that features a magnificent performance from Rickman as the complicated Alex and fine support from Weaver and Moss as the new women in his life.  (Rickman was one of the first thesps on board, and suggested Weaver for the part of Linda after working with her in Galaxy Quest.)  What I loved best about Rickman’s realistic character is that he’s often genuinely frustrated by Linda, who can be quite a handful, nicely avoiding any Lifetime Movie of the Week clichés.  Scripted by Angela Pell and directed by Marc Evans, Cake received four Genie Award noms (the Canadian Oscar), with Moss a winner for her turn as the neighbor who coaxes Rickman out of his shell.

Away From Her (2006) – I watched this the same evening as Snow Cake, and since both films take place in the wintery climes of The Great White North, I should have called it something like “Neighbor-to-the-North Night.”  Best Actress nominee Julie Christie is luminescent as Fiona Anderson, an elderly woman who agrees to move into a nursing home—despite the reservations of her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent)—when her problems with Alzheimer’s prove to be too burdensome.  The facility to which Fiona relocates has a policy in which spouses are not allowed contact with one another for thirty days (according to administrator Madeleine Montpellier [Wendy Crewson]) to facilitate an easier transition…but once the grace period is up, Grant is bewildered to learn that Fiona has developed an attraction to another resident, played by Michael Murphy.

I often worry about the mental health of my own parents (my dad’s mother had a severe case of Alzheimer’s later in life), which is why I was attracted to the heartbreaking melancholy of Away From Her, in which a loving couple’s relationship is tested by the loss of one’s memory.  Away also suggests subtly that Fiona’s condition might be payback for an earlier event in their lives in which Grant (a college professor) had a dalliance with a student (much of the movie is told in flashback).  Well-acted by the principals, which also include Olympia Dukakis (as Murphy’s mince-no-words spouse) and Kristen Thomson (as a supportive nurse), and written and directed by Sarah Polley (her feature film debut, winning her a Genie Award for Direction and an Oscar nom for Best Screenplay), who adapted Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”  This one’s a keeper.

Grindhouse (2007) – Putting this one in “Cinematic Vegetables” is a bit out of place because I actively sought this one out—directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez team up for this homage to exploitation films, with Tarantino’s contribution (Death Proof) centering around a misogynistic stuntman (Kurt Russell) who uses his automobile to murder members of the fairer sex and Rodriguez sending up horrific horror films (Planet Terror) with a concoction centering around a plague that transforms people into flesh-eating zombies (okay, that might be badly stated—I don’t know of any vegetarian zombies).

When the two features that make up Grindhouse are shown on IFC they’re shown separately…so I saw Terror before Proof, which might explain why I thought Rodriguez’s movie was a little stronger than Tarantino’s; Quentin’s contribution seems to be little more than a rehash of his Kill Bill saga, and for an action film there’s a hell of a lot of unnecessary talk in it.  (I was also disappointed in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s turn in this—I’m starting to think Smashed is the best thing she’ll ever do.)  Rodriguez’s Terror gets all the cheesy horror clichés right (there’s even a reel missing, which I found falling-down hilarious)—I was even willing to overlook the fact that a film like the one Rodriguez emulates wouldn’t have such outstanding special effects in reality.  The splitting up of Grindhouse also robs you of some of the “Coming Attractions” trailers…several of which have inspired real movies of their own (Machete, Hobo with a Shotgun).

Lymelife (2008) – My interest in this one boils down to two words: Jill Hennessy, still my favorite of the Law & Order ADA’s (as Claire Kincaid) and later the star of Crossing Jordan.  Jill plays the mom of Rory Culkin, a young mook growing up on Long Island circa 1979; Culkin’s dad (Alec Baldwin) is a real estate developer who’s shagging the mother (Cynthia Nixon) of his best friend, Emma Roberts.  The title of the film alludes to a Lyme-disease outbreak in the neighborhood at that time, with which Roberts’ dad (Timothy Hutton) has been diagnosed.

Oh, you haven’t lived until you've agreed to sit down with a movie that not only features the loathsome Baldwin (I make a concerted effort to ignore an actor’s personal life with his profession…but I’ve given up on this jamoke) but two Culkins (brother Kieran plays the older brother, on leave from the military).  Still, it was worth it for Hennessy, and Hutton is quite sympathetic as the cuckolded husband (sadly, Nixon has very little to work with).  Martin Scorsese was the executive producer of this first feature from brothers Derick (who directed) and Steven (who co-wrote the screenplay) Martini, based on their real-life experiences from their childhood.

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