Sense and Sensibility
After making a name for himself on the international art-house circuit with the Taiwanese dramedies The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee took on the Masterpiece Theater crowd with his first English language film, Sense and Sensibility. Actress Emma Thompson toiled on the script for five years and went on to win an Oscar for her troubles. The film is easily the best adaptation of any of Jane Austen’s musty novels (not my usual fare), but the combination of Thompson and Lee’s ability to make the usually stale material so relatable to modern audiences and the fantastic casting from top to bottom rockets Sense & Sensibility to the heights of the genre. The film is also aided by all-stars behind-the-scenes, including an often moving score by Patrick Doyle (Gosford Park, Rise of The Planet of the Apes, etc.), handsome cinematography by Michael Coulter (who has the market cornered on shooting British rom-coms, including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and simple but elegant art direction by Luciana Arrighi (whose work goes all the way back to Sunday Bloody Sunday in ’71 but who made his reputation designing the best of the Merchant/Ivory canon: Howard’s End and Remains of the Day). And of course Lee himself, who would further his diverse filmography over the years since with an incredible body of work including The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Life of Pi.
Apparently Thompson’s script differs from Austen’s 1811 novel, and it's for the best. The center of the story is the difference between two adult English Dashwood sisters, the reserved Elinor (Thompson) and the dreamy Marianne (Kate Winslet) who are thrust into poverty when their father dies, leaving his estate to his only son (and the son's pushy, conniving wife). Elinor and Marianne, along with their mother and younger adolescent sister Margaret, are forced to live off of the goodwill of friends and relatives, even taking up residences in a countryside cottage without servants! Now penniless, the two sisters are no longer considered good catches for marriage and have to watch as most of their peers become engaged while they are ridiculed for their new lower status. Along the way they meet their sister-in-law’s brother Edward (Hugh Grant at his stumbling, stuttering best); he befriends the family and he and Elinor obviously make a potential romantic connection but are both too restrained and reserved to act on it. This is where much of the film’s comedy comes from: those English corked-up, controlled manners that leave people in a constant state of isolation. On the other hand, the beautiful and lively Marianne does find two suitors. The charismatic, dashing and handsome dream-beau John Willoughby (a solid, but very '90s looking Greg Wise) carries her home when a walk in the rain becomes too difficult; the two truly fall in love, but he is forced to scorn her because of her lack of a dowry, which leads to a Splendor in the Grass-like, deeply heartbroken depression for her. Also a rich neighbor befriends the family and falls for Marianne’s beauty: the much older, grave Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman in maybe his finest performance). He’s a good and sensitive bachelor, but utterly charmless. Through many misunderstandings our heroines' lives sink into more despair until an incredibly moving happy ending (albeit a rushed and perhaps a little too tidy one).Continue Reading
The print journalist drama is a bona fide subgenre; the most popular films like All The President's Men or, more recently, Spotlight are about the crusading journalist overcoming obstacles in pursuit of the truth. Often more interesting is the cynical side of the coin, about the corruption of truth, but those films don’t usually connect with the public or award-givers as easily. The best of the genre would be a couple of masterpieces -- Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and to some extent Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane -- but one film that went under the radar upon release and holds up very well is Shattered Glass. The 2003 docudrama was written and directed by Billy Ray, based on the true story of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a manipulative young reporter for the respected, 100-year-old highbrow magazine New Republic. When it appears that one of his stories was fabricated, an investigation by the editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) leads to the embarrassing revelation that actually at least twenty-seven articles he wrote were completely made up.
Glass is the kind of passive aggressive guy who continually says "I’m sorry” or worse, asks his colleagues “Are you mad at me?,” putting them in the position to make him feel better, even when he’s wrong. He seems to have a knack for finding interesting characters and angles to political and cultural stories, and though he cozies up to anyone who could help his career, he’s especially cuddly to the women he works with (in an asexual way). But as a journalist he’s respected as a real wunderkind, apparently traveling the country finding witnesses to his colorful and offbeat pieces. When the beloved editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) is fired for trying to overly defend his staff from management, he is replaced by the less lovable Lane. Glass writes an entertaining piece about a computer hacker convention that catches the admiring eye of the editor for Forbes Digital online magazine. He passes it to a writer, and here is where the Woodward and Bernstein of the story emerge. A pair of tech writers (Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson) start to investigate Glass’ sources and find nothing but holes. While Glass can not account for all his shoddy note-taking, Lane becomes the only one who can take on the popular writer, as his colleagues, especially writer Caitlin Avey (indie darling Chloë Sevigny) have fallen under his spell.Continue Reading
Southside with You
Maybe the best thing to emerge out of the Armageddon that is our current state of politics is an exciting new budding movie subgenre: the Barack Obama dramas. (Remember kids, it only takes two films for an official subgenre to be declared). First up is the wonderful Southside with You, which chronicles one night in Chicago in 1989. As far as modern romance goes it's an important night, even if it’s just platonic at first. It’s the would-be first date between twenty-eight-year-old law firm summer intern Barack, on a break from Harvard Law, and his supervisor, law firm associate Michelle Robinson, then twenty-five (who, of course, would one day become superstar first lady Michelle Obama). And then rounding out the Obama origin story is another film: a Netflix original called Barry, which follows the young future president while attending graduate school at Columbia in New York. Both films give sneak peeks as to what would make our future hero tick.
The smooth-talking, street-smart and cigarette-smoking Barack (Parker Sawyers) had in mind a date; the much more serious and seemingly ambitious Michelle (Tika Sumpter) supposedly thought they were just going to a community meeting. Instead, Barack first leads Michelle on a stroll down Michigan Avenue and a stop at the Chicago Institute of Arts, where he impresses her with his knowledge of the work of black artist Ernie Barnes and his iconic piece The Sugar Shack (familiar to pop culture nerds from being featured in the credits to television's Good Times and on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s ’76 album, I Want You). But Barack really gets to impress when they get to the meeting, where black neighbors are disappointed the city has turned down their request for a community center. Barack woos the crowd with his speech-giving magic. Interestingly, instead of going for the usual and obvious us-vs-them take, he asks the crowd to think about the city’s point of view and what the two views have in common (shades of his famous 2004 Democratic Convention speech, that really put him on the map nationally). Here Michelle has two evolutionary moments -- and the film really is through her eyes -- first, she sees the political gifts that Barack has and secondly, after years at Princeton, Harvard and working corporate law, she realizes how out-of-touch she has become with the daily problems of the poor. Barack inspires her to get involved.Continue Reading
Emperor of the North
Starting with Bonnie and Clyde in ’67 and throughout the '70s, the Depression in America became an exciting setting for a whole slew of films. That dark period of the 1930s sometimes became romantically re-imagined as a freewheelin’ adventure time or was used more dramatically as a metaphor for current times. Prime examples include The Sting, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, Dillinger, Boxcar Bertha, and Hard Times. And though it does not get off to the most promising start, Robert Aldrich’s 1973 movie, Emperor of the North, ends up being one of the best action flicks of the decade, as well as an almost comic-book Valentine to the era.
After opening with a scroll about the history of hobos riding the rails, Emperor of the North then rolls into the most unfortunate film theme song with all-stars behind it, maybe ever. “A Man and a Train,” with lyrics by the great Hal David (partner of Burt Bacharach), music by the nearly legendary Frank De Vol (he scored most of Aldrich’s films and The Brady Bunch!) and sung by Marty Robbins (”El Paso”), features gems like “a man's not a train and a train's not a man. A man can do things that a train never can.” I’m not sure what the word is for homoeroticism between a man and a train, but this song is it.Continue Reading
When we think of Woody Allen’s evolutionary assault on film history, we think of his amazing one-two-punch of Annie Hall in ’77 and Manhattan in ’79 (and some may add Stardust Memories to the streak in ’80). But usually forgotten (and some would say for good reason) is the little film in between them in ’78 called Interiors. After years of slapstick, the comic/director’s Annie Hall surprised audiences with a more mature and almost serious direction (and won lots of awards for it). But with Interiors, Allen turned the seriousness up to an eleven.
This was his bold attempt at a Bergmanesque (a term invented because of this movie) cold, depressing family drama; there’s not a joke in sight, not even a smile. It couldn’t be more bleakly Scandinavian, as heartbreak, envy, divorce, adultery, rape, icy silence and of course, suicide by drowning take their turn on the screen. Allen puts together an interesting cast of actors at their most introspective. Leading the way is his then-muse, Diane Keaton, along with Geraldine Page, Mary Beth Hurt, Sam Waterson, E.G. Marshall, Maureen Stapleton as well as impressive newcomer Kristen Griffith and, in a stroke of inspired casting, the great B-Actor Richard Jordan. At the time, not only was this a new direction for Allen, it was unlike anything any major American directors were doing.Continue Reading
Tilt is a quirky, surprisingly endearing movie about growing up. The examples being made show the fumbling of a young man keen on trying to con his way into obtaining respect and a fourteen-year-old girl who doesn’t know what respect is. This morality tale is somehow sweetly wrapped up in the act of pinball hustling. That’s right, pinball.
There are few films that handle the cult fascination with pinball parlors or even arcades for that matter. Joysticks and The Wizard come to mind almost instantly. Surely the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters shows that the craze is still very much alive. Those old enough to be adolescents or young adults during the '70s and '80s can even likely attest to there being a lack of nerd-association with the sport.Continue Reading
Beastmaster is classic of early '80s swords and sorcery films. Providing all of the staples of the genre, as well as providing some head scratchingly original material. Although it's one of those action films that you really need a sense of humor to appreciate, (Beastmaster is a total B movie) there is a coherent enough story line, interesting characters, and some pretty decent effects for the time, making it clear why this film has, over the years, gained a growing cult following. The Beastmaster begins with 3 disfigured witches peering into a cauldron and casting spells. After seeing a vision, they inform Maax, an evil high priest (Rip Torn) that he will be slain by the king's unborn child. Maax, in order to sacrifice the baby, sends one of his witches late at night to the child's bedside with a cow. The witch transfers the baby into the cow's womb with magic and escapes with the child to a remote place. Just as the witch is finishing her ritual, about to deal the killing blow, she herself is killed by a passing peasant with a bladed boomerang.
The peasant then returns to his village with the child and begins to raise the boy. In his childhood the boy, now named Dar, discovers that he has a telepathic ability to speak with animals and see through their eyes. Soon after the boy Dar becomes a fully grown Beastmaster, played by Marc Singer, his entire village is destroyed by savage, animalistic, barbarians. Dar then does the only thing any respectable Barbarian, animal controlling, orphan would do. He begins a quest for revenge.Continue Reading
THIS JUICE BUGZ Somewhere between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Batman there is Tim Burton’s feature length sophomore effort, Beetlejuice. Upon a recent rewatch, I realized I’d forgotten how truly amazing, wildly inventive and original this phantasmagoric odd-ball comedy was! It’s quite frankly the purest Burton experience for me. It’s just silly how much of JUICE’s visual language oozes with Burtonisms! Add to that the sweet (as in cool) dialogue and characters created by co-authors Michael McDowell and Larry Wilson. I’m kinda in love with it lately!
THE DIRT ON THE DEAD… Adam and Barbara Maitland just died. Played with great wholesomeness by Alec Baldwin (Adam) and Geena Davis (Barbara). So they die. But for a while they don’t know it. It becomes more apparent to them when they find a copy of the Handbook For The Recently Deceased laying around the house and the rude awakening that the Deetz’ are the new occupants and owners of their house! The Deetz family comprises of the artistically manic Delia (Catherine O’Hara), her uptight hubby Charles (Jeffrey Jones), and their ever morbidly morose daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder).Continue Reading
Clash of the Titans (1981)
CLASH DANCE The well known and much revered stop-motion special effects guru Ray Harryhausen has brought numerous beings of various shapes and sizes to life over his career (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger). In the mythological world of Clash of the Titans there are many interesting characters and creatures. Playing God behind the camera one frame at a time, Harryhausen has brought some of his most memorable offspring to life (Medusa, Pegasus, Giant Scorpions, the Kracken).
STORYLINE OF THE GODS Here’s the deal, Zeus (Laurence Olivier), in one of his many amorous exploits, has had a son named Perseus (Harry Hamlin). Due to Zeus’ favoritism of Perseus over the Goddess Thetis’ (Maggie Smith) son Calibos, a clash begins [insert opening credits and dramatic musical score here]. From that point on Perseus sets out on a quest to "fulfill his destiny" by defeating numerous obstacles, slaying fantastic beasts, and winning the hand of the doll-faced Andromeda (Judi Bowker). The script was penned by Beverly Cross who also scripted other Harryhausen films such as Argonauts and Eye of the Tiger.Continue Reading
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
GILLIAM’S ISLAND From the clunky, cluttered, and effectively eclectic mind of director Terry Gilliam comes this fabulous wunderkind of a film known as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. One of my personal favorites indeed! Munchausen comes as the third installment of Gilliam’s unofficial trilogy. The previous two films include Time Bandits and Brazil.
A CITY UNDER SIEGE In the midst of a war-torn city its residents are struggling for survival. Momentarily distracting themselves from their distraught surroundings they watch a depiction of Baron Munchausen’s adventures being put on by a local theatre company, Henry Salt And Son [“It’s traditional”]. However this reenactment becomes interrupted by the authentic Baron Munchausen (John Neville) himself! He’s old and cranky and he clamors onto the stage to set the record straight about himself and his adventures. Did I mention he’s a liar? Or is he?Continue Reading