2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.
Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.Continue Reading
Catch Me if You Can
Catch Me if You Can is the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (DiCaprio) who, by the tender age of seventeen, cut over $2.5 million dollars worth of fraudulent checks and was one of the FBI’s most wanted. Frank travels the globe, taking on such identities as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and an attorney. Always on his tail is fraud expert Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks) from the Bureau.
Although a story of a con man on the run from the law, the way this story is told, it comes across more like a fairy tale about the impetuousness of youth. Steven Spielberg’s direction is flawless in maintaining this tone throughout, telling a “crime story” that is amazingly playful. John Williams’ hip retro score and the great momentum of Michael Kahn’s editing add to this happy-go-lucky sort of attitude. The vibrant color palette, fantastic sixties costume and production design, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, all contribute to make up this wonderful “true story of a real fake.”Continue Reading
Charlie Wilson’s War
A smart and funny political biopic for grown ups from director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) about the likable Texas congressman whose influence led to U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Tom Hanks plays “(Good Time) Charlie Wilson” as a well meaning political hack who watches as his crusade for the U.S. to assist in helping the people of Afghanistan against their Soviet occupiers turns into a Cold War sideshow that inadvertently gives rise to Islamic Radicalism. The film manages to stay light on its feet without glossing over the sobering consequences of what was a complete mishandling of a volatile situation.
Loosely based on his autobiography written from behind bars, Chopper is the story of legendary Australian criminal Mark "Chopper" Read who garnered fame with his claim that he had killed up to seventeen people.
Andrew Dominik’s screenplay adaptation is wonderfully colorful and peppered with Aussie colloquialisms, while also being naturalistically brutal and raw. It is the type of story that pulls no punches and hits you in the face like a locomotive.Continue Reading
Cleo From 5 to 7
What defines the feminine experience? What does it mean to live, breathe, and die as a woman? Agnes Varda questions mortality through the eyes of a beautiful young woman on the edge of success in 1960's Paris. Cleo has been to the doctor and is waiting for the diagnosis, though she's convinced it's cancer. We follow her in real time for two hours and stand as witness to the fullness and frivolousness of a life coming to terms with itself.
Death and despair compel the coquettish Cleo into existential searching meeting with friends, lovers and strangers and we see her precise steps into and out of an other's preconceived perception. Coy lover, whimpering child, precocious beauty, passionate collaborator, old friend and lovely stranger: Cleo is all of these but then so much more as you realize she is fast forwarding the journey to find herself the anchor that she desperately needs to face her death and to fight for life.Continue Reading
When 24 Hour Party People came out, I overheard a lot of dour Raincoat types leaving the theater expressing their wish that whole film had been about Ian Curtis and not those awful acid house Blue Tuesdays or whatever was going on after Ian Curtis' death, at which point their lot zoned out 'til the credits. I thought of how awful that would be - a film about Joy Division. Biopics are always so suspect. Myth-making, made-for-cable garbage with chest-beating and hammy impressions instead of acting... you know, the kind of thing the Oscars are made of. Thankfully, Control is not like that.
Control is directed by Anton Corbijn, which I didn't know till the end. Whatever you think of the guys videos, he has an eye for arresting (if sometimes comically dour) imagery. He's also Dutch and therefore a natural fit for Joy Division’s world which is black and white and eternally wintery, even in the summer – like World War II movies.Continue Reading
Cradle Will Rock
Cradle Will Rock belongs to that class of movies that don’t particularly offend anyone or bomb big enough to become a notorious flop; nor was it greeted with a ton of enthusiasm. Considering the talent involved with the film—Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, John and Joan Cusack, and Susan Sarandon, to name but a few—the mild applause the film seemed to generate upon its release was kind of like damning with faint praise. I never understood this because I find Cradle Will Rock to be a whole lot of fun, while at the same time serving as a pointed critique of the political apathy prevalent in art today.
The film tells the story of one of the most mythologized theatrical events of the 20th century. No surprise that Orson Welles was directly involved then. We’re in New York in 1937 and the city seems to be the epicenter of a massive upheaval in society at large. There is labor unrest, growing unease about global fascism, and a gnawing sense that capitalism has failed the common interests of the average citizen. (Hey, maybe the film is due for a critical re-appreciation after all…)Continue Reading
Days of Heaven
The tale is simplicity itself: A young man (Richard Gere), his girl (Brooke Adams), and his spunky kid sister (Linda Manz) flee trouble in Chicago and find harvesting work on a wheat farm owned by a wealthy Texan (playwright-actor Sam Shepard). The couple, who are masquerading as brother and sister, learn that the farmer is terminally ill, and the young man encourages the woman to marry the farmer so that they can claim his fortune after he dies. Confusion, suspicion, disaster of near-Biblical proportions, and tragedy ensue.
Were it not for Manz’s deadpan voiceover narration, this pictorial masterwork could almost be a silent film – director Terrence Malick’s spectacular images tell the story. Shot by Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for his painterly cinematography (with an assist from the supremely gifted Haskell Wexler), Days of Heaven is among the most gorgeous features ever made. Filmed mostly in twilight’s “magic hour,” the film is bathed in hues of lavender and gold. It’s a rapturous visual poem that shocks the eye with its beauty.Continue Reading
In 1982 when Diner was released it may have been confused with Porky's, another film about the nostalgic sexual misadventures of young men in the 1950s. Porky's, though a big hit in its day, was actually a pretty lousy movie and now completely forgotten. Diner, on the other hand, gets better with age. It's not just because of the smart dialog, complicated relationships, and impressive core of young actors who would go on to substantial careers; it's also a rather powerful film about growing up and coming to terms with lost youth and adult responsibilities.
Diner is the story of a group of early twenty-something young men in 1959 suburban Baltimore and is said to be semi-autobiographical for writer and director Barry Levinson. Having written scripts for Mel Brooks (Silent Movie and High Anxiety), as well as the oddball dramedy Inside Moves, Levinson was an established writer making his directing debut. Levinson would, of course, go on to have a prolific hit and miss directing career (hitting often with Rain Man, The Natural, Bugsy, and Wag the Dog; but missing even more often with junk like Toys, Man Of The Year, and Envy). Diner has proved to be the high point for originality and earned pathos in Levinson's career.Continue Reading
Valentine's Day is just around the corner and it may very well be a made-up holiday but your loved one probably won't care who made it up as long as they have Valentine status. If you don't have a special someone on the day, who cares? We are celebrating love. Love. Everyone has that - don't let the crappy candy tell you otherwise and if you want to see the softer side of V-Day, I have the perfect choice.
Disappearing Acts is a made for HBO film based on a best selling novel by Terry McMillan. It tells the sexy and heartrending story of Zora and Franklin - a new couple dealing with the beauty and land mines their love encounters. Sanaa Lathan and Wesley Snipes are a gorgeous and skilled duo whose initial chemistry and lust might set your plasma screen on fire. They are hot and then hotter. So much fire and it seems inevitable that someone will get burned, but far from one dimensional these two lovers come complete with personal history that informs without slagging on the pace or script. Their new love is surprising and fun and it is a treat to watch them discover deeper levels of emotional intimacy as they tackle the obstacles between them.Continue Reading