Monday, April 29, 2013

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) Brad Furman [1:58]

It’s not that easy to adapt a good mystery/crime/courtroom novel to the screen. If it were, we’d probably see more of them. Think about the last really good mystery/crime/courtroom drama you read that worked just as well onscreen. 

That’s what I thought.

But for reasons I can’t explain, average or below-average novels are sometimes adapted into some pretty good movies. I never thought The Lincoln Lawyer was one of Michael Connelly’s strongest novels. Sure, it has the disadvantage of introducing a new hero, attorney Mickey Haller, setting up his character and giving him an adventure to get him started, but the story was fairly predictable and the solution a little too easy to figure out. Still, Connelly is a better than average writer even on the rare occasion when he’s disappointing. (And the Mickey Haller series does get better.)

Haller (Matthew McConaughey) is an L.A. attorney whose office is his Lincoln Town Car, driven by a former client named Earl (Laurence Mason). Haller excels in defending the scum-of-the-earth, so when a rich, privileged young man named Louis (Ryan Phillippe) comes to him saying he’s been framed for raping a prostitute, Haller thinks it’s just another case. 

It’s not just another case, but it’s very close to becoming just another movie. Director Brad Furman employs several quick cuts, filters, cool music and documentary-style camera work to make the film seem hipper than it actually is. 

There’s really nothing here that we haven’t seen before, although a good supporting cast (including Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Michael Paré and Bryan Cranston) helps, but they aren’t given much to do. Maybe the producers felt those names would help bring in enough of an audience to pacify the McConaughey haters. 

But McConaughey gets the job done. Sure, he might be 10 years too old for the role, he might be annoying, but he is convincing as Haller and knows how to work a scene. Give the man that. 

There’s nothing particularly flashy about The Lincoln Lawyer. It’s not a great courtroom drama, but it’s not bad. You could find worse ways to spend two hours.


Rated R for violence, sexual content, language 

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Best Films of the Past 25 Years?

James McCormick recently shared a post from Ciriticwire, listing several critics (including McCormick) and their picks for the best films of the last 25 years. Some of their choices may surprise you. 

We’re talking from 1988 to today in 2013. Everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Mississippi Burning to Oblivion and Scary Movie V and everything in between. (I am not, mind you, positing that the aforementioned movies are necessarily any good, you understand.)

What movies would I pick? Before I tell you, here are my qualifiers:

I spent about five minutes (not much time) thinking about which films from the past 25 years have: 

  • stuck with me

  • made me think

  • delivered some type of spiritual connection or worldview

Here’s what I came up with:

Magnolia (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

No Country for Old Men (2007) 

Mulholland Drive (2001) 

The Tree of Life (2010) 

Zodiac (2007)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Michael Clayton (2007)

Now tell me your picks.....

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Criterion Collection Titles for July

The Criterion Collection titles for July 2013 were announced yesterday. Continuing in a somewhat disturbing trend, Criterion will once again offer no Eclipse Series boxed sets in July. In fact, today’s release of Eclipse Series 38: Masaki Kobayashi Against the System looks like the last set we may get for quite some time. Let’s hope it’s not the very last one. Anyway, here’s what Criterion will be releasing in July:

The Life of Oharu (1952) Kenji Mizoguchi - July 9, 2013
New to the Collection - Spine #664

I must confess to knowing nothing about this film or its director, Mizoguchi. Clearly I am living in ignorance. But the film is currently playing on Hulu+, so I can correct this oversight soon.

Lord of the Flies (1963) Peter Brook - July 16
Blu-grade - Spine #43

I watched this film at least 20 years ago (before reading the novel) and don’t remember being overly impressed, but I feel confident that this version is far superior to the 1990 remake. The 1963 version is also currently playing on Hulu+. 

Babette’s Feast (1987) Gabriel Axel - July 23
New to the Collection - Spine #665

It seems every year I encounter someone who cannot believe I have yet to see this film. Maybe this is the year I will join the feast. 

The Ice Storm (1997) Ang Lee - July 23
Blu-grade - Spine #426

I remember watching this sometime in the late 90s, being mesmerized by the performances and the direction, but somewhat depressed by the moral ambivalence of the film. I’m certainly willing to give it another shot. 

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) Guillermo del Toro - July 30
New to the Collection - Spine #666

What a fitting spine number for this early del Toro title, alas, one I have yet to see. The new cover clearly looks like a Mike Mignola creation; if so, that’s reason enough for me to pick it up. This is certainly the film I’m most looking forward to in July.  

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Revisiting Michael Mann's Collateral (2004)

Taken at face value, Michael Mann’s Collateral isn’t really an action-packed, high-octane thriller at all. It’s a brilliantly delivered battle of worldviews.

Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx) has driven a cab in Los Angeles for 12 years. You might think he has no ambition, but he does. Early in the film, we notice the pride Max takes in keeping his cab not just clean, but spotless. You see, Max has a master plan - to own a limo service that’s second to none. When the limo stops at your destination, says Max, the experience is so wonderful, you’re not going to want to get out of the limo. 

But all that is in the future. In the present is Vincent (Tom Cruise), a prematurely gray man in a gray suit who’s Max’s next customer. Only Vincent plans to be a long-term customer, hiring Max to drive and frequently look the other way for the rest of the night. 

After a very close encounter with a dead body, Max quickly realizes that Vincent is a hit man and isn’t going to let Max go until everyone on Vincent’s list is eliminated. Max is still in shock when we get this exchange:

Max: I think he’s dead.

Vincent: Good guess.

Max: You killed him?

Vincent: No, I shot him. Bullets and the fall killed him.

It soon becomes obvious that Vincent rejects any moral standard, having no regard for anyone’s life (except, of course, his own). After the first hit, Max can’t get over the fact that Vincent has actually ended someone’s life. Vincent argues, “Get with it. Millions of galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars, in a speck on one in a blink. That’s us, lost in space. The cop, you, me... Who notices?”

If we are just impersonal specks in a random universe that doesn’t care, if there is no system or standard in place to judge us, what’s the big deal over killing a few people? Max can’t really explain why Vincent’s worldview is wrong; Max is caught in an argument that Vincent turns around on him, reminding Max that, although he’s got bigger plans, he’s been driving a cab for 12 years, after all:   

Max: Someday? Someday my dream will come? One night you will wake up and discover it never happened. It's all turned around on you. It never will. Suddenly you are old. Didn't happen, and it never will, because you were never going to do it anyway. 

Vincent has power over Max because Vincent has no regard for life and Max does. It’s ironic that, when visiting Max’s mother in the hospital, it’s Vincent who shows thoughtfulness and compassion. He knows how to work it.

But Max knows a few things too. Maybe he hasn’t thought out his worldview as well as Vincent, but he makes some important discoveries on the L.A. streets as he carries out Vincent’s itinerary. 

Collateral provides a wealth of worldview discussions that could run long into the night for those who have the desire and curiosity to do so. Besides that, it’s an excellent film, one that has received far too little attention in the nine years since its release. Despite the fact that Foxx was nominated for an Oscar for Collateral, fans rarely mention this role when speaking of Foxx’s best performances. Tom Cruise fans apparently didn’t like the graying action hero playing a villain, either. As its 10-year anniversary approaches, Collateral is a film that should be revisited for many reasons: superb direction from Mann, excellent performances, great use of location, tight action, unbearable suspense, and, possibly most importantly, for its examination of worldview.    


Monday, April 08, 2013

Juan of the Dead (2012)

Juan of the Dead (2012) Alejandro Brugués [1:40]

As a zombie movie, there’s really not much to Juan of the Dead, but as a comedy, it has some great moments. In Castro’s Cuba, the Zombie Revolution has broken out. Cuban TV news commentators spin the rise of the dead as a political revolution or a mass of dissidents, but Juan - who, while fishing, saw a zombie rise up from the Gulf of Mexico - knows better. 

Juan and his friends spend most of their pre-zombie days hanging around Havana doing nothing. The best thing in Juan’s life is his daughter Camila, who wants nothing to do with him. No problem, he thinks; she’ll come around. There’s always plenty of time in Cuba, right? 

There’s no sense of urgency with Juan or his friends, even when the zombies start to attack. Even then, Juan and his buddies have no idea how to deal with them. Crosses? Silver bullets? Wooden stakes? (Did these guys ever watch any movies? You get the impression that Castro didn’t allow too many horror flicks into Cuba.) Juan even gets the idea that he and his buddies could make some money from this, sort of a poor man’s Ghostbusters, only with zombies. 

Juan of the Dead is often a fun ride and much of its humor (though often crude) works. Much of it is satirical and I’m probably missing a lot not knowing enough about Cuban culture, but I found myself laughing more than I thought I would. Unfortunately, the film meanders frequently and is about 10-15 minutes too long, with an ending that feels contrived. Yet Juan (the film and the character) has an unmistakable charm that can’t be denied. Worth a look. 

(Rated R for gore, language, nudity, crude humor); with subtitles


Saturday, April 06, 2013

March Movies Part II

Picking up from two posts ago, the rest of the movies I saw in March:

The Lost Reunions (NF 2012) Danny Diaz [1:14]

Previously discussed here


Do You See What I See? (2013) Lee Bonner [1:20]   2.5/5 

The End of Time (NF 2012) Peter Mettler  [1:54]   3/5

Oxygen for the Ears: Living Jazz (NF 2012) Stefan Immler  [1:34]   4/5

All three of the above films discussed previously here.

The Lookout (2007) Scott Frank [1:39]

I probably would’ve gotten around to The Lookout eventually, since it stars one of my favorite young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but since the film appeared in Leonard Maltin’s book  Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, viewing it was something of a certainty. 

Gordon-Levitt plays Chris, a high school hockey star who makes a foolish mistake that ends in a tragic accident early in the film. As a result, Chris suffers brain damage, which limits his ability to remember. Reduced to working as a late night janitor in a bank, Chris falls into the wrong crowd and is soon part of a plot to rob the bank. 

I’m not sure why this film wasn’t better received. Although the heist film is a familiar sub-genre, first-time director Scott Frank structures the film well and knows how to put Gordon-Levitt to good use with the character of Chris. Here’s a guy who’s made a huge mistake, has learned from it, but is about to make another one. Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors who makes us want to root for him. He’s good-looking, but probably not a head-turner. He’s the kid next door that you like hanging out with. In The Lookout, you not only want to hang out with him, you’re pulling for him not to make another big mistake. 


Donnie Darko (2001) Richard Kelly [1:53]

I intend to write much more about Donnie Darko, especially with respect to worldview, once I have also watched the director’s cut, which runs at [2:13]. 


Looper (2012) Rian Johnson [1:59]

Another Joseph Gordon-Levitt film, but one that will have you wondering during the first few minutes whether you’re really watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt. You are, he’s just wearing a lot of prosthetic make-up. (Watch the movie and you’ll understand why.) 

All I’ll tell you about Looper is what you no doubt already know: it’s a time-travel movie, and anytime you’re watching a time-travel movie, you really can’t think about it too much, not if you want to enjoy it. It’s sort of like watching a magician work. If you look closely enough for long enough, you’ll probably discover how the trick is done. But that also takes away from your enjoyment of the trick. 

Rian Johnson also directed Brick, another film with Joseph Gordon-Levitt that I reviewed recently. Both films are entertaining and worth your time, but they also confirm that Johnson is a director worth keeping your eye on. 


Thursday, April 04, 2013

Roger Ebert 1942-2013

This is a very sad day for me. One of my heroes, Roger Ebert, passed away today. I consider him a hero because he was able to do two things that I've always wanted to do: watch movies and discuss them in a way that is intelligent, yet not pretentious. Ebert had a way of writing about movies - even movies you'd think you'd have no interest in watching - that made you want to trust him. Although I found myself agreeing with him less and less these past few years, I always respected his opinion, experience, and tremendous amount of knowledge. 

I'll never forget having seen the movie Magic (starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margaret) in 1978, thinking it was absolutely sensational until I watched the episode of Sneak Previews in which Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel tore the film apart. I watched Magic again and realized Ebert was right: it wasn't a good film and he could point to all the reasons why.

From that moment on, I found myself agreeing with Ebert more than I didn't. In the 80s, I would frequently purchase Ebert's yearly reviews of movies on video, reading them from cover to cover. I wasn't always able to catch Sneak Previews or At the Movies, but when I did, you couldn't pull me away from the TV. The best portions of those shows included heated arguments between Siskel and Ebert. You got the impression that not only did they frequently disagree, they probably didn't even like each other. 

This thought came out in a series of interviews with Bob Costas that aired sometime in the late 80s or 90s. I remember it was a two-part interview with both critics that was very revealing. Both Siskel and Ebert started out as journalists, not film critics and each of them thought they were the better critic. I think they eventually replaced that animosity and rivalry with something that eventually evolved into respect. If you never saw Siskel and Ebert in action, you really missed something special. If those episodes are ever released on DVD, I'd buy 'em in a minute. (You can see many of them on YouTube.)  

Of course Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times webpage and his blog have always been enormously popular, but my favorite way to experience Ebert is by reading his books, particularly his three volumes of The Great Movies. These volumes are priceless, presenting Ebert's choices of and justification for the greatest films in cinematic history. I only hope that more of his reviews and essays will be collected for future volumes. 

Ebert was deeply passionate about film. He once stated on a show that he had seen Citizen Kane 75  times and several other films 25 or more times. People don't watch films that many times without being passionate about them. Ebert was a frequent lecturer on film and provided commentary on far too few films, among them Citizen Kane, Casablanca and Dark City. I deeply regret that I never met him, but after reading his memoir Life Itself, I feel I know him in a distant, yet significant sort of way. 

Are there better critics out there? Probably. But something about Ebert spoke to me, and not just me, but no doubt countless others. Roger Ebert talked intelligently about a subject I already loved and turned it into a life-long passion. For that, I owe him a great deal. Rest in peace, Roger. And listen, you and Gene take it easy on each other, okay? 


March Movies Part I

I saw 14 movies in March, so I’m giving you seven today, seven tomorrow. Or maybe the next day....

The Atomic Submarine (1959) Spencer Gordon Bennet [1:12]

Ships begin to disappear in the Arctic Sea and a newly equipped atomic sub is sent to investigate. Ah, 1959.... It was a time when you’d hear lines like this:

“What could be worse than disappointing a little girl?”

“Disappointing a big girl.”

The Atomic Submarine isn’t the worst sf movie you’ll ever see, but neither is it anywhere close to the best, but since I have a thing for submarine movies, and it was on the Hulu Channel, I had to see it.   


The Browning Version (1951) Anthony Asquith [1:30]

Previously discussed here.


Notorious (1945) Alfred Hitchcock [1:41]

It doesn’t matter how many times I see Notorious, I’m always amazed at how good it is. It’s got a bit of everything: adventure, intrigue, mystery, suspense, romance, wine and champagne.... Plus you’ve got the famous crane shot, the long staircase, and that chilling final shot. Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains - they’re all perfect. I picked up the new Blu-ray edition from MGM which looks and sounds pretty good, but accessing the extras is really wonky.    

5/5 (Seen multiple times, at least 7)

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1961) Tony Richardson [1:44]

Part of the British New Wave films of disillusioned youth, this time with Tom Courtenay as Colin Smith, a young man who gets into enough trouble to be sent to a youth detention center. He can run, though, so the headmaster (another excellent performance by Michael Redgrave) hopes Colin can win the running event in an upcoming competition against a public school. 

In some ways, the film is a typical "rebel against the establishment" movie. Is Colin going to run for the man or tell him what he can do with his race? The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is told through a series of flashbacks that work fairly well for its purposes. The soundtrack contains some nice moments (especially one of Colin’s running sequences backed with jazz), but others that make no sense. Unfortunately Richardson includes a few fast-motion scenes of teens trying to evade the police, scenes accompanied by frantic, cartoon-like music that, I suppose, is meant to convey the sense of “Those crazy kids!”, but instead woefully misfires. The film is dated, but contains several nice moments and the performances are good. Worth your time. 


Zodiac (2007) David Fincher [2:42]

Previously discussed here.

5/5 (3rd time I’ve seen it, the last time in 2008)

Timecrimes (2007) Nacho Vigalondo [1:29]

A pretty nifty low-budget time travel movie from Spain that works most of the time. Most of all, I'm interested in seeing what Vigalondo will do next. Worth a look.  


Süskind (2012) Rudolf van der Berg [1:58]

Previously discussed here


More next time....