Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Having lived in a town relatively close to Atlanta for over 45 years, I have often had to drive to the big A to see decent movies because they didn't play here for months, if ever. So last weekend while we were in Memphis with family, I managed to see two well-made, perhaps Oscar-worthy films. The first was ARBITRAGE, smartly directed and written by Nicolas Jarecki and starring Richard Gere as a powerhouse hedge funder in crisis. Judging from the public reaction to some excellent films on the economic crisis (MARGIN CALL), very few will see this one, but they should. Gere gives one of his best performances as he tries to juggle family problems, the implosion of his company, and a cover-up of a personal disaster. The supporting cast is equally strong, especially Susan Sarandon as Gere's seemingly compliant and happy wife and Tim Roth as a dedicated but somewhat sleazy cop on Gere's trail. We expect more emphasis on the wheel and deal world of high finance but instead we are thrown into a tense thriller where death and family ruin are in the cards. Highly recommended.

One of the most popular young adult novels, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, 1999, has finally been turned into a movie which keeps the strengths of its origins. Why? The author, Stephen Chbosky, has written the screenplay and directed the film himself. As in the novel, "Charlie," the wallflower of the title tells of his dilemma after a mental breakdown before going into high school. He is more than shy and fears a relapse, as do his parents. Logan Lerman, who played Christian Bale's loyal son in THREE TEN TO YUMA, is an appealing young actor who can capture mood changes with just a slight movement in his face. His version of Charlie is humorous, fearful, and occasionally heart-breaking. The camera catches intimate moments without undo comment and that makes them even more emotional. At one point Charlie happens to see his older sister's boyfriend slap her viciously and tries to intervene. This action makes us admire him even more. Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, is believable as senior outsider Sam who, along with her openly gay half-brother Patrick, takes him under her wing. That acceptance into a group, even one of outsiders, is the beginning of Charlie's reemergence into life. But there are pitfalls, especially when Charlie falls in love with Sam. The entire cast is excellent, and the wonderful Paul Rudd plays an understanding English teacher. When Charlie spontaneously hugs him at the end of the school year, some former teachers felt more than a little tug at the heart. Unlike most teen dramas, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is meant to be seen by audiences of all ages. Its understanding of sensitive issues such as mental illness, abuse, and bullying make it much more important than the usual teen trash. Highly recommended.

FOOTNOTE: no bows and arrows, vampires, werewolves, or avengers were used in the making of these films. However, sex, alcohol, rock and roll, and drugs do appear in one or both.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tim Burton...Odder and More More Beautiful

In 1984 a lowly Disney animator who didn't fit into the Disney happy train created a delightfully different 19 minute film called FRANKENWEENIE, the charming story of a boy and his dog. Typical, but very changed. This time the boy does lose his dog to a car accident, but, inspired by his science teacher, he reanimates Sparky. Tim Burton used live action and actors and filmed in moody black and white to tell his version of the Frankenstein legend. His quirky, often morbid style was already in full play, as he lovingly aped the famous transformation scenes from both the original FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN of 1930's fame.

Often taking a short skit or film and stretching it into a full length movie doesn't work. Just look at most of the Saturday Night Light sketch characters who had films based on the show and were never heard of again. But here we are in 2012 and Tim Burton, one of the most successful directors today, has reanimated his original film and stretched it into over 100 minutes. Did it work? Yes, mostly so.
All the gothic lighting, foreboding but amusing music, and wry homages to old movies are here. Plus there are even more allusions to past films. One key difference is that this film is animated, not live action. The charming performances of the actors in the original (Shelley Duvall as Mom, Daniel Stern as Dad, and Barret Oliver as young Victor Frankenstein are replaced by voiced cartoonish figures that simply don't deliver the humor and humanity of the originals. That aside, Burton has created a visual feast of bizarre characters and events.

The plot is basically the same. Young Victor loves his dog Sparky, Sparky gets whacked by an auto, Victor (using his school science lessons and every electrical appliance in his house, including the family toaster) reanimates Sparky with mixed success. Soon the secret is out and the townspeople (think those unruly villagers in the old Frankenstein movies) are on the march. We even have the famous scene that ends FRANKENSTEIN, where the monster is chased up to the windmill and consumed in flames...or so we think. Burton provides many inside jokes. Victor's neighbor is named Elsa Van Helsing, referencing Elsa Lancaster as the original BRIDE and DRACULA's famed vampire hunter, Van Helsing.  She even receives a lightning hair-do. Victor's weird schoolmate is Edgar E. Gore, alluding to Igor, the hunchbacked lab assistant from the original FRANKENSTEIN films and even more so in Mel Brooks' brilliant parody YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

The big plot extension comes with Victor's secret being stolen by his classmates. Their experiments turn into monsters. We see a turtle become a Godzilla, a cat become a vampire, etc. And finally there is the great windmill scene. Burton has created a clever, artfully crafted film. Even though it doesn't quite match the fresh spirit of the original, this FRANKENWEENIE is a treat.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Bang, Bang! Past, Present & Future

Not much seems to change with America's love of gunfire, as evidenced in three recent films that take place in the 1930's, the present, and the next century. The first is LAWLESS, a prohibition drama that tells the "true" story of three brothers who run a moonshine buisness in Southern Virginia. Suddenly big time crime bosses from Chicago try to take over, and the Bondurant Brothers refuse to back down. That's it. That's the movie. As the oldest and fiercest of the brothers, Forrest, Tom Hardy is taciturn and menacing but also appealing. He is the head of the family, and family comes first. Shia LaBoeuf plays the youngest brother, who is itching for action and a chance to prove himself. Herein lies the film's major flaw. LaBoeuf is totally miscast as country boy. His speech and demeanor signal a greaseball in a Chicago speakeasy, not a struggling kid in the sticks. The most interesting performance comes from Guy Pearce who plays corrupt special deputy Charley Rakes, a near psychopath, who is both a dandy and a sadist. Pearce, with greased back hair and city zoot suits, plunges into his role and steals the movie. Needless to say, the gunfights are plentiful and extremely graphic. LAWLESS has several effective dramatic moments, but the guns rule, as they probably did back in 1930's rural Virginia.

The best of these three films is set in present day Los Angeles. END OF WATCH is yet another police drama that dives into the worst areas of city life, in this case, South Central LA, where poverty, drug running, and crime are the norm. The director, David Ayer, wrote the screenplay for the powerful drama TRAINING DAY, which exposed corruption in the LAPD and won Denzel Washington an Oscar for playing an immoral cop. Ayer's take on the department is much more humane here as he explores the strong friendship between two young partners, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. While patrolling they kid each other with ethnic jokes, but it is obvious that these guys have a true friendship. But every day is a chance for disaster. The title "end of watch" refers to a traditional response to the death of a police officer on duty, so the premise of the friendship under pressure leads us to wonder who will die or if no one will. The men are filming an informal documentary, so there is much jolting camera work, perhaps too much. But the expose of the conditions that many suffer in South Central LA is gritty and rings true, and Pena and Gyllenhaal are superb.

As for the future, the highly praised LOOPER plays with time travel, always a tricky subject.
The talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays looper Joe Simmons. Simmons works for a Mafialike crime syndicate that runs Kansas in 2044. His job is to kill people from 2074 who are sent back for extermination. In 2074 time travel was invented but quickly outlawed, even though the mob secretly uses it. Joe is stunned to realize that his latest target is his older self, a grizzly, take-no-prisoners looper. Naturally the two begin a hide and discover game that leads to a bloody shootout at the film's end. Old Joe, played by Bruce Willis, is out to kill the baby who will grow up to be the man who orders his killing. Got that? It is involved, but not complex or philosophically interesting on the level of the much superior INCEPTION a few years ago. The physical violence in LOOPER is as nasty as that of the films above, but there is more dread implied since children are involved.