Saturday, February 23, 2013

Leonard Maltin's 151 Best Movies You've Never Seen (2010)

I absolutely love books and discussions that revolve around great (or even good) films you've never seen or films that few people seem to know about. Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin's book of 151 titles covers many mainstream films that bombed, as well as indie, foreign and just plain odd films. I don't see that many films a year, so I wasn't surprised that I had only seen 9 of the ones presented here.  But with a book like this, it's all about discovery, right?

Maltin's reviews (or synopses) are quite short, usually only slightly over a page. Some of that space is devoted to why the film got slighted or didn't get much exposure, so in some cases, there's not much to go on to recommend it other than Maltin's frequent "Trust me on this one" pleas.

Films are listed alphabetically, with Maltin supplying the title, release date, director, screenwriter(s), original source material, and main actors. I wish he had also supplied each film's running time. A thumbnail of the poster or DVD art would've been nice as well, but I understand that probably wasn't feasible. 

For reasons I can't quite explain, Maltin has never been one of my favorite reviewers. I think he often has some good things to say and I appreciate the fact that he champions films that haven't received enough attention, but even in this collection, you can see Maltin's personal tastes and admiration come through for certain directors and screenwriters. (He even mentions this at times, so there's really no foul. And what do critics get paid for, anyway? Their opinions.) Maltin avoids spoilers, which I appreciate it. In this case, I'm glad he's told me less instead of more. 

I found myself at least mildly interested in many of these films, at least half of them. I plan to actively seek out at least 25 of them. Most of these films were released in the period of 1997 to 2008, but you'll find a smattering of older films as well. Definitely worth a look. 4/5

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lake Mungo (2008) - Joel Anderson

The first several minutes of Lake Mungo make you feel as if you're watching just another horror mockumentary, a subgenre made famous by The Blair Witch Project back in the 90s. Director Joel Anderson starts out with some creepy old black and white photographs that set the tone for what's about to transpire. Nothing new here, but still, it's effective. 

As the story begins, 16-year-old Alice Palmer mysteriously drowns during a family outing. The story consists largely of on-camera interviews with members of Alice's surviving family: her parents and teenage brother Matthew, who live in Ararat, Australia. But there's much more to come. In the midst of the family's mourning, Matthew discovers photographic evidence that Alice's ghost may be inhabiting their home.  

I won't tell you much more than this, only that information about Alice - including some of her secrets - comes to light, leading her family to question what might really have happened to her. What makes Lake Mungo so effective and so eerie is the realization that some of our friends and loved ones who have passed away may have carried secrets we never knew about and probably shouldn't know about. Sometimes too much information is more than just uncomfortable; it's disturbing and horrific. 

Although it contains some genuinely creepy scenes, Lake Mungo will be too slow for some viewers. At just under an hour and a half, it may seem glacial, but Anderson paces the film expertly and gives us actors whom we swear are the real thing. It's rare to find a filmmaker who understands that the slow, progressive accumulation of terror and dread is much more disturbing than slash and gore. 

As much as I liked Lake Mungo, on a personal level, I can't watch it again. I often talk with people about the right movie at the right time and for me, Lake Mungo was the right movie at exactly the wrong time. I recently experienced a death in my immediate family and for whatever reason, I decided to watch this film last night; maybe because it had been sitting in my Netflix queue for a long time, maybe because it's about to be removed from the Instant Queue. It was a mistake.  

Maybe a future post will cover more on "The Right Movie at the Right Time," what to watch, when to watch it, and maybe more importantly, when not to watch it. I think what I need next is something funny and classic, like Bringing Up Baby or A Night at the Opera. So, while I can highly recommend Lake Mungo, I won't be watching it with you.    4.5/5  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Revisiting The Game 15 Years Later

When I saw that Criterion was releasing David Fincher’s The Game (1997) on Blu-ray, I decided it was time to revisit Fincher's third film. To be perfectly honest, I couldn't remember much about The Game. It had been 15 years, but I can still remember other films from much farther back, so there had to be a reason I couldn't recall any specifics about this one. After a second viewing, I understand why.

Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a filthy-rich San Francisco investment banker who has little time for the people he knows and even less for those he doesn't. His younger brother Conrad (played  by Sean Penn) falls somewhere in between. Nicholas, on his 48th birthday, reluctantly agrees to have lunch with his black-sheep brother, who gives Nicholas a voucher for a game that is guaranteed to change his life. 

Soon the game is on and all hell breaks loose. So do the plot holes. The best way to enjoy The Game is to pay as little attention to details as possible. For instance (MILD SPOILERS), consider that (1) Nicholas is given access to this game by his brother, who has seemingly recovered from a prodigal-son type of existence, (2) the game is given to Nicholas on his 48th birthday, the same age Nicholas' father was when he committed suicide (You'll remember this from the belabored home-movie-footage Nicholas replays in his mind early in the film.), and (3) Nicholas is a jerk whom we really don't care about unless the film can show that there's an opportunity for him to change. The third point is a given; the first two points, if you dwell on them at all, give the whole thing away.   

Yet the first third - heck, maybe the first half - of the film is extremely effective. Fincher knows how to tell a tension-filled story and how it should be paced. Yet with each twist, the audience's suspension of disbelief crumbles until you're left with nothing but pebbles held together by cobwebs. By the time the ending arrives, you realize not only that it's unsatisfying, but also would've been impossible to pull off even in the most fanciful reality. At one point, Nicholas says he wants to see who's standing behind the curtain, pulling the strings. I can tell you, it's not The Great and Powerful Oz.  

Yet Douglas - who is onscreen for just about the entire 128-minute running time, is excellent. Could there have been a better casting choice for Nicholas? I don't think so. 

As many reviewers have stated, The Game is a film you can really only watch once. (Or twice, if your memory is as bad as mine.) I certainly won't watch it again (unless my memory gets really bad). I'm actually surprised that Criterion decided to release and upgrade this title. If they wanted to do a David Fincher film, my vote would be for Zodiac.  If they wanted to do a movie about a game, one film that's screaming for a Blu-ray release is the 1972 version of Sleuth with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, a film that does bear repeat viewings, especially to marvel at the incredible performances of the two leads. 

To call The Game a cheat would be unfair. If you're paying attention, it tells you what it's going to do. It's not unfair and it's not dishonest. But it is disappointing when you pull back the curtain and realize that, yes, it's a very pretty curtain, but one filled with many, many holes.  3/5

Saturday, February 02, 2013

January's Movies

I can never find enough time to write about everything I’d like to, including the films I see. Of the 11 films I saw in January, I discussed only three of them on the blog. I’d love to revisit one or two others and write more on them later. Maybe I will.

Anyway, I’ve linked to previous posts on three of these films. The others I’ve only written a few sentences about, but I hope it’s enough for you to gauge whether or not you’d like to see them. (I only list TV shows after I’ve watched an entire season.) Each film listed includes title, release date, director and running time. (Since TV seasons often contain multiple directors, I do not list their names, even if the same person directed each episode.) 

Road House (1948) Jean Negulesco [1:35]

Lightweight noir with Richard Widmark going a bit over the top. Some good moments; hardly a noir classic, but worth a look. 3/5

Oslo, August 31 (2011) Joachim Trier [1:36]

One of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film. The pace of this film - about an addict’s first day of freedom from being institutionalized - might be too slow for some, but there’s some real treasure to be discovered here. Excellent performances. 5/5

Brick (2005) Rian Johnson [1:50]

Discussed previously here. 4.5/5

All Night Long (1962) Basil Dearden [1:31]

Discussed previously as part of the Criterion Collection's Eclipse Series 25 Basil Dearden’s London Underground set here. 3.5/5

Desert Bloom (1986) Eugene Corr [1:45]

A disappointing film, despite a nice performance by Annabeth Gish as a young girl coming of age during the post-WWII atomic testing in Nevada. The story is too obvious, too predictable, almost making you think you’re watching a Lifetime movie. 2/5

The Invisible War (NF 2012) Kirby Dick [1:37]

Another Oscar nominee, this time for Best Documentary - the story of rape in the military, a problem that does not seem to be getting better. 4/5

Being John Malkovich (1999) Spike Jonze [1:58]

Previous thoughts here. 4/5

Sherlock: Season Two (TV 2012) [4:26]

If you haven’t seen this modern-day BBC incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, find Season One and get caught up. (Each season is only three episodes long, but they’re all about 90-minutes each.) Finally, a TV show that’s clever, smart, engaging and addictive. 4.5/5

Night Train to Munich (1940) Carol Reed [1:33]

Rex Harrison playing a singing spy trying to pass as a Nazi? How can you say no to that? Despite a goofy shootout and a pretty misleading title (Very little of the film actually takes place on a train.), Night Train to Munich is a fun tale. 3.5/5

Cold Weather (2010) Aaron Katz [1:30]

Calling this a sleeper would be inaccurate. Maybe comatose would be better... “Slacker noir” actually may be the best way to describe Cold Weather, which features a former forensics science major named Doug (Cris Lankenau) who fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes. Doug investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend in a dreary Portland, Oregon. Probably the most laid-back detective film of all-time, Cold Weather slowly accumulates  into something quietly memorable and endearing. 4/5 

Black Moon (1975) Louis Malle [1:40]

Black Moon is very much a film of it’s time, dealing with the battle of the sexes with a twisted Alice in Wonderland backdrop. Many will find it offensive. Unless you’re either a student of 70s films or a Criterion Collection completist, skip this one. 2/5

Now tell me what you saw last month....