Movie Review: Wild Grass (2010)

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You know those dreams you have where not much happens? You go about your day and the events you experience in your dream are so typical that they could nearly be mistaken for real life except for the fact that something about them is a little off.

You find yourself determined to accomplish something -- to over-think a hypothetical phone conversation, to perhaps make a connection with another person whom you've idealized way out of proportion, to fly in a plane or to satisfy your most childlike emotions of feeling excited or hurt in your own solipsistic, out-of-control dreamlike state.

It's not real, of course, it's part of your imagination or your subconscious – you're watching yourself act in ways that feel foreign to you as though you're being directed or you're acting in a movie that you're also directing. Unless it is real, you think and you begin to wonder since you weren't alone in your dream but you were with the people you love and a few you may not have met but whom nonetheless feel so amazingly familiar that you start analyzing everything looking for allegory or existential dilemma.

Freewheeling reverie and indulgent navel-gazing abound in eighty-eight year old Alain Resnais' latest effort Wild Grass. Adapted from Christian Gailly's novel L'Incident, the film tries to lull you into thinking it's one of the French auteur's most accessible efforts only for Renais to pull the rug out from under you.

And soon the work grows excessively irrational and challenging as it continues to the point where finally – out of sheer exhaustion and impatience – you're greeted with a final scene that's so absurd the only possible reaction is helpless laughter.

Yet despite the fact that exactly what transpires during the course of the pretentious film is anyone’s guess, it all begins inauspiciously enough as a seemingly routine narrative work in which dentist Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema) becomes the victim of a purse snatching after visiting a high end shoe boutique.

When her wallet is later discovered abandoned on the ground in a parking garage by Georges Palet (Andre Dussollier), Wild Grass twinges with a more sinister and slightly suspicious subtext as the happily married middle-aged man quickly changes from simple good Samaritan to misguided stalker, unwilling to accept Margeruite’s polite phone call to thank him as the end of their tentative relationship.

Disappointed that she isn’t more curious about the man who returned her wallet to the tune of wanting to meet him as much as he desperately wants to meet her, Georges becomes increasingly obsessed, escalating in behavior from unwelcome ritual evening phone calls to slashing her tires.

After getting the police involved to try to weather the storm, the characters in Resnais’ film somehow shift, psychologically merging into one as illogically Marguerite transforms into the aggressor, unwilling to sever her ties with the unstable Georges.

While we were given clues early on into the movie that perhaps the characters weren’t exactly what they seemed as Resnais – remaining true to Gailly’s style – incorporated stream-of-consciousness narration that interrupt traditional voice-overs, once he begins exploring bizarre and inconsistent behavioral patterns, it becomes incredibly difficult to sympathize with either main character since they’re neither convincing nor very likable.

Likewise, in the fight to remain simultaneously rooted in reality as he is fascinated by fantasy, Resnais loses the battle altogether due to the plain fact that style cannot replace substance and there’s not enough being said in Grass to warrant the anarchically Wild approach.

Obviously it’s still commendable that after more than six decades of filmmaking, Resnais still enjoys marching to the beat of a drummer he’s created by tune of inserting odes to movies of yesteryear and relishing in the minutia of everyday life in ways that are sure to both dazzle and frustrate art house filmgoers. Having said this, unfortunately I’d still prefer to revisit Last Year at Marienbad rather than meander through these blades of Grass, whether I’m asleep, awake or somewhere in between.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I attended a press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Movie Review: Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore [3D] (2010)

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Recently a reader asked me via FormSpring whether or not I’ve ever changed my mind about a movie. Thrilled for the opportunity to explain that yes, I indeed have reversed opinions since over the years my attitude and knowledge has evolved as I’ve experienced more out of life, it was only shortly after I answered this question that I found myself faced with another reevaluation of opinion when a trip to Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore made me reconsider my generally negative view of 3D.

Although I don’t dislike the process in theory since a filmmaker should employ whatever tools are at their disposal to execute their vision, Hollywood’s overreliance on 3D as a gimmick is as dangerous as the usage of too much CGI or green screen technology that at times serves to dazzle us with spectacle without placing the same emphasis on story and character development.

Needless to say it’s important to find the right balance between special effects and a compelling screenplay but somehow, against all odds and quite surprisingly in a summer that most assumed would belong to Pixar, Warner Brothers throws viewers for a complete loop with a truly imaginative, visually exciting and downright funny family film that’s all the more admirable given the fact that it’s a sequel.

Yes, like most talking animal pictures (and children’s movies in general), Cats & Dogs is filled with a stellar ensemble of celebrity voice actors including more than its fair share of television Emmy award winning sitcom talent like Christina Applegate, Neil Patrick Harris and Sean Hayes.

Of course, Bette Midler is predictably terrific as Kitty Galore, the title’s former feline spy gone villainous rogue. However director Brad Peyton also manages to reach beyond the usual suspects to ensure that its primary duo of two buddy cop style canines would sound both believable and refreshing to viewer ears with the inspired choice of Nick Nolte as the world weary Butch and the under utilized James Marsden as the anxious rookie Diggs.

After being kicked off the police force and grounded to his kennel for excessive, unauthorized use of tail wagging chutzpah that resulted in an entire used car lot’s worth of property damage, Diggs is recruited by DOG Headquarters to help Butch prevent vengeance crazed Kitty Galore from unleashing a heinous sound dubbed “The Call of the Wild” that will turn man’s best friend into man’s biggest threat.

Reluctantly forced to collaborate with the cats they traditionally love to chase and terrify into frenzy during their cover roles as household pets, Diggs and Butch team up with Christina Applegate’s sophisticated and smart MEOWS agent Catherine to bring down one of her own former allies.

In a witty “cat-meo” that I discovered harks back to the 2001 original film which I did not see, Sean Hayes returns briefly as the diabolical Hannibal Lecter inspired Mr. Tinkles, whom the crime-stopping heroes visit in their forty-eight hour quest to stop Galore. Just one of the many pop-culture jokes seasoned in the screenplay to appeal to older viewers – while admittedly the third act begins to grow a bit long before the final showdown, overall the movie works beautifully in appealing to all demographics.

Screening complete with an irresistible Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner 3D cartoon that I’d originally feared was inserted to appease older audience members for the kidtastic feature to come, Cats & Dogs managed to break the streak of insanely bad talking animal features of recent years from Space Chimps to G-Force with its adorable blend of seamless puppetry, computer animation, live action and nicely unobtrusive 3D that enhanced sequences rather than serving to distract.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I attended a free press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

TV on DVD: Cartoon Network Hall of Fame: Courage the Cowardly Dog -- Season 1

Now Available to Own

Launched in an era of pop culturally aware, postmodern animated series developed to appeal as much to children as well as savvy older viewers who may also be in the room during the same time slot, the delightfully macabre and darkly comedic television creation Courage the Cowardly Dog marked a bold departure from traditional cartoon fare.

Instead of sending up standard live action family sitcoms a la The Simpsons or The Flintstones or relishing in the good old fashioned physical gags of cat-and-mouse chases from the days of Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry, Courage mastermind John R. Dilworth sought inspiration from classic horror films, science fiction features and cult drive-in movies.

Dilworth's series centers on a pink scaredy cat... er, dog ironically named Courage, who must routinely save his beloved elderly owner Muriel as well as her curmudgeon husband Eustace from various monsters, creatures, and psychopaths who flood into their town of Nowhere twice during each episode.

Dilworth's character made its world debut as Hanna-Barbera's only Academy Award nominated animated short in the studio's history when 1996's seven-minute The Chicken from Outer Space initially garnered acclaim. Eventually the Courage character was spun-off into its very own series in 1999, which Warner Brothers recently unveiled, serving up the first season of Cartoon Network's frightfully funny hit as part of the cable channel's Hall of Fame line of DVD releases.

Still as bizarrely demented as ever, this action packed hit is certainly for an acquired taste as some of the creepy crawly critters may turn one's stomach despite the fact that they're animated.

Nonetheless the cinematic scope of the visual presentation never fails to impress. The ordinary world of Courage and his owners is transformed two times during each episode into a mini-horror movie or science fiction extravaganza depending on the diabolical plots that never fail to play off of genre conventions and standard film cliches in a way that makes one eager to see what Courage will grudgingly face next.

Delicately, it underplays the peril of his owners with recurring gags that find them asleep or otherwise unaware of how much danger they're in when a fox needs Muriel to make granny stew or creatures have temporarily gotten the upper hand of Courage's masters. And from fights mid-air to using whatever tools happen to be at his disposal, the reluctant but good-natured dog who loves his human mother always wins out in the end.

Yet despite its knack for blending the sugary sweet with the sinisterly sour, it's highly recommended that as a parent or guardian you view a few episodes of Courage before you decide to introduce the unlikely hero to your children to see whether or not Nowhere is a town they'd be inclined to visit.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.


Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: The Red Shoes (1948)

Now Available to Own

Easily one of the most sumptuously sensuous films ever made, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s groundbreaking Red Shoes hasn’t lost its ability to both seduce and startle viewers more than sixty years after its cinematic debut in 1948.

And while the tragedy of the fairy tale inspired dual storyline was inevitable from a narrative standpoint, perhaps the most shocking aspect of Shoes wasn’t the fact that one of our main characters dies in an abrupt final sequence but rather for what such a doomed fate meant for those watching the picture.

Namely, instead of suggesting that we should only be prepared to die simply to protect our freedom, home, family and country, The Red Shoes seemed to argue that now that the second world war had ended, for artists, there was no cause more important to put our lives on the line than art.

“Why do you want to live?” young dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) asks Boris Lermontov, the head of a ballet company (Anton Walbrook) before he replies that he must. Quickly, the woman startles him by sharing that his answer is the exact same reason she gives upon being asked why she wants to dance.

Art and life are interchangeable to a passionate performer, we discover in this absorbing drama that has more in common with serious opera than it does with other works traditionally categorized alongside it in the musical genre.

And although the calculating methods employed by the egomaniacal Lermontov easily make him the film’s emotional villain, in order to become a prima ballerina, we simultaneously realize that Victoria Page wouldn’t have it any other way. Page’s rise to fame as a principal dancer in Ballet Lermontov are mirrored by the mutual climb to musical heights achieved by talented composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), both of whom work alongside Lermontov.

Traveling with Lermontov throughout Europe, the two British talents prove their mettle in the company’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous tale The Red Shoes, which chronicles the downfall of a dancer who’s unable to stop performing until her body gives out, thereby foreshadowing the film’s eventual heartbreak.

Given the chance at stardom after Lermontov fires his former headliner when she gets married which goes against his belief that one can never be a great dancer if one “relies upon the doubtful comfort of human love,” Page’s ambition to let Lermontov mold her into “one of the greatest dancers the world has ever known” is threatened when unexpectedly, she begins to fall in love with Craster.

Challenged by the film’s separately classified desires to live life versus practicing art as Powell and Pressburger’s stance seems to coincide with the attitudes expressed by Lermontov including the ultimate revelation that it’s impossible “to have it all,” the characters reach their breaking point in this recently restored cinematic classic.

Lovingly remastered to high definition and transferred to crisp Criterion Collection Blu-ray complete with demonstrations by one of the film’s most ardent enthusiasts, Martin Scorsese as well as an interview with Scorsese’s longtime editor/collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker who is Michael Powell’s widow, The Red Shoes has been impressively infused with an overall filmic look despite the fact that the new master was created 100% digitally.

Originally photographed in the magenta, green and blue three strip color process, restorers of this award-winning print have removed decades of mold build-up and debris to sharpen blurry images and adjust the strained color to ensure that the film dazzles with dance-fueled grandeur during the movie’s iconic roughly twenty minute ballet sequence, which inspired Gene Kelly to such an extent that he had collaborators watch the work repeatedly prior to shooting An American in Paris.

Retaining the 1948 1.33:1 vintage square shaped aspect ratio, Criterion fills the disc with commentary by historian Ian Christie in tandem with cast and crew interviews, Jeremy Irons audio recordings as he performs Andersen’s fairy tale and excerpts from the filmmakers’ novelization, a documentary and more. All in all, it’s an exquisite presentation of the movie that’s sure to delight its most passionate fans as well as fascinate those who are just becoming acquainted with the work.

Yet despite its existence as luscious poetry in motion, The Red Shoes isn’t a perfect film and while of course the movie’s flaws don’t ruin the film overall, nonetheless, since it is one of those pictures so impossibly close to perfection, they do stand out. In addition to the picture’s oft-discussed glaring inconsistency on display in the film’s most notorious shot of a character’s lifeless body which hearkens to the title, there are a few structural problems that do hinder the overall impact.

Even though the relationship between Craster and Page seems to bloom out of nowhere, it’s still easier to overlook than some of cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s self-conscious camera trickery on display in the ballet sequence. From double images to instant wardrobe changes, at times it jolts us out of its hypnotic trance by all-too-forcefully reminding us it’s a movie after all, instead of letting Shoes wash over us as if we were part of Lermontov’s company standing in the wings, waiting for our cue to dance both as if our lives depended on it and because we must.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 5

Now Available to Own

Titles Included: Armored Car Robbery; Backfire; Cornered; Crime in the Streets; Deadline at Dawn; Desperate; Dial 1119; The Phenix City Story

Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Although it ushered in an era of superior heist movies including The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, Richard Fleischer’s grainy docudrama style thriller manages to impress in spite of its straightforward approach, thanks to a sharply written screenplay and crisp fast cuts that ensure that a car chase still puts us on edge sixty years after it was filmed on location in Los Angeles.

With extraordinary attention to detail and impeccable knowledge of the thieves as well as the police, we follow criminal mastermind Dave Purvis (William Talman) who is revered in the underworld as the only schemer to have ever successfully robbed an armored car.

Working with a new crew including the husband (Douglas Fowley) of a stripper (Adele Jergens) with whom Purvis has been having a clandestine affair, Purvis plans another elaborate heist, which turns into a shooting gallery soon after it starts, sending at least one man to the morgue on the sides of both the cops and the robbers.

Determined to seek justice on behalf of his dead partner, Lt. Jim Cordell (Charles McGraw) employs a variety of police methodology from good old fashioned shoe leather as a man goes undercover to state of the art techniques like bugging a vehicle to try and nab the hold up men.

The shortest film in the collection, clocking in at a mere sixty-eight minute running time, Armored may not offer anything new to the genre in terms of the endless heist films that most likely crime movie fans have seen over the last several decades but it still makes for a compelling screening, given the talented cast of character actors all on their game as evidenced in a well-executed supporting turn by Steve Brodie as a caught in the crossfire villain.

Likewise this RKO Picture is particularly of interest due to its truly intelligent and highly authentic screenplay that at times I feared could act – in regard to Purvis’ behavior – as a model guide on how to live in the shadows and not get caught… unless of course, you fall for the wrong stripper and/or have Lt. Cordell after you.

Backfire (1950)

As far as brilliant hooks go, Backfire’s first act is a humdinger. Convalescing following a serious spinal injury in the war, Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) undergoes thirteen surgeries with the strict orders that when he’s finally released he should forget about his dream to run a ranch with best friend Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien) since all he should be lifting is a pencil.

The only problem is that the man who’d always regularly visited and kept in touch with him during his hospital stay has fallen off the map for more than a month. This leaves Bob deeply concerned about what kind of trouble his friend Steve could’ve encountered which alarms him even further after he receives a strange female visitor in the middle of the night with ominous news about Steve.

Adding more suspicious fuel to the fire of Bob’s stressed mind, as soon as he walks out of the hospital he’s picked up by the local police who are eager to track down Steve as well, informing Bob that he’s wanted for the murder of a notorious gambler.

Longing to prove Steve’s innocence even if it means doing just that without the assistance of his missing friend, Bob ignores the advice of the boys in blue that playing cops and robbers is a game best left to kids or officers and sets out to search for answers, eventually zig-zagging his way through a parade of shady characters whose stories reveal that Bob may not have known Steve quite as well as he thought.

Along for the ride is Bob’s new Florence Nightingale style love interest as Virginia Mayo aids Bob in his quest as the woman who nursed him back to health and continues doing just that in a more romantic fashion once he’s discharged.

While the dogged determination of MacRae’s character makes him the ideal Noir everyman eager to discover the truth about a complicated turn of events that occurred when he was under the surgeon’s knife in an amateur sleuth model we still see today in Neo-Noirs like Memento or Frantic, unfortunately director Vincent Sherman’s intelligently plotted work begins to lose our interest as he meanders from one location to the next.

Perhaps a solution to the pacing issue may have been seasoning the final act with a little more “show me” action instead of “tell me” stories or a more generous amount of edits to shorten the already succinct ninety-one minute movie but despite the uneven finished product, it’s nonetheless one of the stronger entries in this admittedly weak collection.

Cornered (1945)

A veteran song and dance man from his earliest days portraying crooners and hoofers in Warner Brothers classics like 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, after Dick Powell’s successful and lauded turn as a serious dramatic actor tackling Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, he reunited with director Edward Dmytryk in the Noir tinged post-war conspiracy thriller Cornered.

Woefully miscast as a returning POW out to seek revenge for the murder of his bride of less than three weeks, Dick Powell’s ex-RCAF pilot Laurence Gerard goes on the hunt to locate the Nazi collaborator responsible whom he believes has faked his own death and may be hiding out in Argentina.

With a wooden delivery of poorly written dialogue and a tendency to make up for the drudgery of the unremarkable script by going way over the top in bigger scenes to the point where he carelessly throws a gun across the room at a lamp and nearly bursts into tears in front of others in a way that never feels authentic, the only thing memorable about Powell in Cornered is just how bad he is in a role that barely convinces us Gerard can find his hotel room let alone unravel a mystery.

Additionally, it's unintentionally hilarious when you consider how little logic is employed by our hero who willingly and constantly walks into traps that pretty much everyone who’s seen a movie before can see coming long before it’s too late for Gerard. While Cornered would have been excellent comedic fodder for the characters on Mystery Science Theater 3000, as a movie in its own right, it makes you feel incredibly nostalgic for the days of Dick Powell, music man.

Crime in the Streets (1956)

Speaking of musicals, aside from the killer credit sequence that intercuts violent action with the film’s cast and crew, when Crime in the Streets begins, it’s pretty hard not to view the picture in comparison with other teen gang fare of the era like West Side Story. However, instead of the sweeping numbers like "Maria" or "I Feel Pretty," this jazz punctuated production helmed by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel replaces music with endless speech-making in essentially the afterschool special version of WB’s far more popular title, Rebel Without a Cause.

Having originally aired on television under the direction of Sidney Lumet as part of “The Elgin Hour,” Crime in the Streets finds a majority of the actors recreating their roles once again for the film, which includes an electric and intense turn by John Cassavetes in his breakthrough performance as the eighteen year old leader of the street gang The Hornets who tests the mettle of his fellow hoodlums when he begins to plan the murder of a neighborhood snitch who sent one of their friends to jail.

Although a majority of the group bails on Cassavetes’ murderous motives, future film director Mark Rydell and Rebel star Sal Mineo pal along with their leader despite the best efforts of social worker Mr. Wagner (James Whitmore) who hopes to change the boys’ minds before they let their broken homes in the slums get the better of them.

Unflinching and potent, it's still tough to watch today as a menacing Cassavetes towers over his younger brother or threatens to stab Mineo in an alley in an especially eerie scene considering the tragic death of the actor in real life. And while nothing about Crime in the Streets feels the least bit indicative of Film Noir, as a social justice picture that called attention to escalating youth violence, it’s a searing document of the time and societal temperature.

Likewise, despite the best efforts of a talented ensemble cast, the movie just tries to cram in far too many speeches for its own good, which both challenges the viewers at home to absorb what is in reality on par with a night at the theatre and the actors as well in making the sudden personality flip of a key character in the end feel a bit too sudden.

Daring and stylish, while it’s doubtful you’ll ever want to watch Crime a second time, it’s certainly hard for fans of Cassavetes and Mineo to resist the opportunity to see the men work side-by-side.

Deadline at Dawn (1946)

In just one of the crackling lines of dialogue penned by Clifford Odets in a script based on William Irish’s novel, June Goth (Susan Hayward) tells sailor Alex Winkley (Bill Williams), “this is New York, where ‘hello’ means ‘goodbye’.” And sure enough the two strangers band together when faced with a very long goodbye after encountering the dead body of a boozy floozy who just so happens to be the sister of one of the city’s most notorious gangsters.

Saddled with a wad of dough and a hazy liquor soaked memory from his chance meeting with the victim earlier that evening, the naïve Alex is sharp enough to know that he isn’t capable of murder but knows that he’ll be the first man fingered for the crime once the police and the gangsters discover what’s happened.

Due to return back to base on the six a.m. bus, kind-hearted dance hall girl June teams up with the troubled Alex to clear his name by trying to track down the real killer in the four hour window they have left, with only the sighting of a nervous man and a limping blonde to go on.

Dividing up the search, which later adds a third amateur sleuth to the mix in the form of cab driver Gus Hoffman (Paul Lukas), June and Alex eavesdrop, backtrack, hunt for clues and attempt to walk in the footsteps of a murderer in this admittedly far-fetched offering that warrants a pretty large suspension of disbelief from audience members as the characters just “wing it” while hoping to stumble on a lead.

Oddly matter-of-fact and eerily calm given the fact that they’re sharing temporary headquarters with a corpse, thinking nothing of helping themselves to whatever is in the woman’s icebox and leaving their fingerprints on everything in sight, the set-up of Deadline at Dawn is awkward to say the least.

And while the movie is done zero favors from a seemingly bored performance by Williams, Odets’ sharp ear for dialogue keeps you watching. Moreover despite the fact that you’re not sure you’re on board with the turn of events, Deadline is improved twofold by a genuinely surprising finale including the reveal of the actual murderer which even the savviest viewers are sure not to expect.

Desperate (1947)

On the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of The Red Shoes, editor Thelma Schoonmaker reveals that whenever she’s in the process of cutting footage alongside longtime director and collaborator Martin Scorsese, they always leave Turner Classic Movies playing on the side wall for inspiration.

And one of the great things about devouring vintage cinema is that even in less than stellar B-pictures, you may be struck by something whether it’s a transition, a voice-over, an unexpected entrance or an interesting technique for what could’ve been an otherwise straightforward dialogue scene that simply dazzles the senses and gives you that indescribable celluloid rush of excitement over discovering something new.

This occurred not once but three times during director Anthony Mann’s Film Noir Desperate to such an extent that the inner film geek in me wished that I could somehow send the movie to the attention of walking encyclopedia Scorsese, even though chances are he’s probably seen it before.

Yet although I have no idea if Mann storyboarded the shots in question or rigorously planned out the best way to play with light and shadow, every single time I became entranced by an image onscreen in Desperate, it could be directly attributed to the cinematography by lensman George E. Diskant who ratchets up the tension in his expressionistic visuals from a swinging overhead light that’s used to illuminate the action to the shadow-play and close-up of eyes during a final shootout.

Obviously, given the genre, these ingenious touches are the stuff dreams are made of and Diskant’s bravura approach ensures that even an overly familiar couple-on-the-run plot can suddenly transform an ordinary thriller into what is easily the standout movie in the entire box set.

Newlywed trucker and former army man Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) accepts a job over the phone on his four month anniversary when he’s persuaded by a fifty dollar payday he can’t refuse to transport merchandise from a warehouse.

But when he arrives at the pick-up only to discover that he’s become an unwitting accomplice in a black market heist of stolen goods masterminded by Raymond Burr’s intimidating Walt Radak, the simple gig turns into target practice after Randall blinks his lights at a nearby officer and Walt’s criminal brother is killed in the standoff.

Angry and out for revenge, Radak threatens the life of Randall’s bride Anne (Audrey Long), prompting the two lovers to go on the lam and hide out at her relative’s farmhouse in Minnesota.

While admittedly there’s not much to the sparse screenplay that we haven’t encountered before, thanks to a terrific turn by Burr which causes you to see his famous Perry Mason in an entirely different light along with Diskant’s masterful framing which is sure to make individual shots linger long after you’ve already forgotten what happened in the film, Desperate is quite the Noir discovery.

Dial 1119 (1950)

MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer handed over the directorial reigns to his nephew Gerald Mayer for this workmanlike hostage thriller about an escaped mental patient who steals a gun from a bus driver and holds up a group of people at a neighborhood dive bar.

Demanding a walk-on from the police psychiatrist whose testimony had originally locked him away in the padded cells of the hospital for the criminally insane, gunman Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) gives the authorities a twenty-five minute deadline before he begins to squeeze the trigger for the third time that night.

Needless to say, it’s a far cry from superior hostage sagas like Key Largo. And while screenwriter John Monks Jr. attempts to keep us interested by creating colorful characters among the bar’s patrons including a burned out reporter, an expectant father, a promiscuous barfly among others, unfortunately without seasoning the already short seventy-five minute script with a bit more action or suspense such as attempts to escape or grab the gun, ultimately Dial 1119 becomes a stationary drama where predictably all of the excitement arrives within the last five minutes.

Despite a great payoff regarding which hostage winds up saving the day that admirably goes against genre convention, ultimately Gerald Mayer’s film is a largely forgettable B-movie venture.

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Due to a major spoiler that’s given away in the opening thirteen minute news report prologue that kicks off Phil Karlson’s true-life docudrama, it’s easy to understand why this portion has been frequently exorcised from theatrical prints of the picture. And although it’s important to remember that these are real lives being depicted onscreen, most likely today this first segment would advantageously appear as a special featurette on a DVD.

Yet regardless of the fact that WB included the special report style footage hosted by Clete Roberts to maintain artistic authenticity in duplicating the look and feel of the original release for its debut in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Karlson’s Phenix remains as potent as ever.

In chronicling the final chapter of the Alabama border town’s near one hundred year existence as a corrupt, violent, vice fueled slice of organized crime run America, we meet two of the men whose refusal to turn the other cheek caused them to risk their lives to change what had become the status quo.

Even though he’d had success prosecuting Nazi war criminals in Germany, when returning vet John Patterson (Richard Kiley) arrives back in Phenix, he discovers that tackling the filthy “machine” or mob run “syndicate” that’s set up shop on the notoriously dangerous 14th Street is a massive undertaking.

However, despite the fact that they have politicians in their pockets, police who look the other way and juries who are paid off to deliver verdicts to their advantage, John refuses to let criminal boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) hold Phenix residents hostage in their own town.

Persuading his own attorney father Albert “Pat” Patterson (John McIntire) to run for the office of Attorney General of the state of Alabama and canvas the terrain of every city telling citizens exactly what’s happened to Phenix, the Pattersons as well as their brave, like-minded friends and neighbors endure murder, intimidation, threats and mob muscle out in full force to scare away anyone looking to cast a vote.

Since the climax of the film had already been revealed in the prologue in terms of the death of one of the key players, Phenix suffers a little bit in its pacing of an overly long final act, given the fact that we always know exactly what fate will hold for a central protagonist.

Likewise, muddling up the serious dramatic scenes with hand-wringing affectation, the woefully miscast and unconvincing Lenka Peterson sours some of what could’ve been some powerful notes in the work as John’s frightened wife Mary-Jo, while Phenix does struggle to hold our attention from start to finish, overall it’s a still shocking and vital piece of social realist filmmaking.

Produced with polish and vigor that makes the movie doubly effective as both educational and entertaining, The Phenix City Story is yet another terrific offering from the stylish, prolific and talented crime film director Phil Karlson who always excelled when working in the genre, especially when he had the benefit of a spine-tingling true story on his side.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

TV on Blu-ray: White Collar -- The Complete First Season (2009-2010)

Now Available to Own

Impressively, Special Agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) is the only FBI man to have ever managed to track down illusive con man Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) both for his initial arrest and again when he escapes from prison with just months remaining of his sentence to find the woman he loves. Nonetheless, the pursuit of Caffrey seems much easier when you realize that on White Collar, he sure walks in slow motion a lot.

However, when you have an actor as handsome as Bomer complete with piercing blue eyes and a Rat Pack wardrobe that includes a ‘40s style hat, which he’s able to flip on his head as smoothly as though he were teaching a class on the subject, it’s easy to understand just why the USA network series enjoys focusing on their charismatic lead even more than the luxurious New York City production design.

Engaging and sophisticated, White Collar plays like a cross between Catch Me If You Can and glossy Hollywood movies about charming rogues like To Catch a Thief and The Thomas Crown Affair. After catching Caffrey for the second time, the internationally renowned forger and art thief offers Burke an invaluable tip he needs on a case he’s working on in exchange for a meeting with him.

Asking Burke for the opportunity to get released into his custody with a tamper proof ankle monitoring device, Caffrey soon finds himself assisting the FBI’s White Collar Division with cases that are right up his alley, all the while privately searching for his ex-girlfriend Kate whom he believes is currently under the control of someone in the government.

And despite their initial hesitation to trust one another, the two professionals who were formerly on opposite sides of the law eventually discover that their mutual respect for each other’s work ethic and basic human decency is the solid foundation of a complex but not at all unbelievable friendship since ultimately, the two know and understand each other better than anyone else.

Having joked that she was always competing with Caffrey for her husband’s attention, Burke’s beautiful and supportive wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen) is eager to finally meet the man who was previously a rival for her husband’s attention, becoming fast friends with Caffrey and the first to stand up for him whenever her husband doubts his new colleague’s loyalty.

Jeff Eastin’s deliciously escapist series dazzles on high definition Fox Blu-ray with one of USA network’s most involving, witty, and cinematic debuts as witnessed in the stunning pilot directed by Forces of Nature helmer Bronwen Hughes that’s sure to keep you invested.

However plot-wise, the following few episodes admittedly drop the ball before Eastin picks up the pen again to co-write the terrific “Flip of the Coin” in the first of four strong installments that usher Collar into its midseason arc, picking up additional momentum as we learn more about Kate’s disappearance, Caffrey’s real motives, Burke’s secret, and additionally encounter an FBI agent who may not be what he seems in a first season recurring guest role for actor Noah Emmerich.

Overall, the series is at its best in the aforementioned “Coin,” “The Portrait,” “All In,” “Free Fall” and “Hard Sell,” because it moves beyond the simple standalone problem solving paradigm to truly build a complicated web that must be unraveled by the end of the season.

Likewise, we wish that Caffrey’s impressive talents for forgery, theft, the con game and impossible escapes were utilized far more often instead of at times letting Collar simply go through the motions as another Burn Notice, Monk, Royal Pains, Psych style USA series where someone uses their intuitive nature and creative knack to save the day for whatever job they’re working on during any given episode so that it’s become a near network formula.

However, when the execution of this particular USA recipe incorporates this much class as well as a crackerjack cast which also includes Willie Garson, ultimately it’s hard to complain too much as we sit back, relax and watch Caffrey walk in slow motion knowing full well that like Burke we’ll catch him anytime because we can.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Movie Review: The Extra Man (2010)

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If I was Paul Dano's agent, I'd be sending my talented client in to audition for roles in action movies, not necessarily because I'm dying to see Paul Dano join the Marvel Universe but because he's one of the most promising actors in his age group and he's dangerously close to being typecast as
über quirky.

By taking a cue from Liev Schreiber who can move from period pieces and heavy dramas to popcorn fare like Salt and Wolverine or Joseph Gordon-Levitt who deftly balances the Sundance cinema of (500) Days of Summer with G.I. Joe, Dano could finally break not only out of the pack but also garner fans from all audiences who would hopefully then explore some of his more intellectually challenging work.

From his triumphant turn as a nearly mute teen in Little Miss Sunshine to playing two roles opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood to his return to Bud Cort territory with Gigantic, Dano is quickly becoming the go-to guy for anything left of the mainstream.

He returns once more to the land of “huh?” in Shari Springer-Berman and Robert Pulcini's adaptation of Jonathan Ames' eponymous novel The Extra Man as a sweet-natured, polite, old-fashioned gentleman whose sexual confusion leads to a rather embarrassing dismissal from his position at Princeton Prep as the film opens.

Similar to The Great Gatsby and the other novels of the Fitzgerald era he idolizes, he confesses to a colleague that he imagines having a '20s style narrator recount his daily movements. And sure enough Dano's Louis Ives finds himself entranced by the Gatsby-like presence of Kevin Kline's mysterious, high culture worshipful playwright Henry Harrison whom he meets in New York when responding to Harrison's ad seeking a roommate.

Willing to allow the younger man the opportunity to pay by the week just until he gets on his feet, Harrison essentially talks Ives into sharing his apartment. However, Ives soon discovers that living alongside the woefully eccentric Harrison comes with several strings attached including the demand that Ives never bring home an overnight visitor and that he never look directly at his roommate when Harrison feels the overwhelming urge to dance like a crazy contortionist at seven in the morning to classical music on full blast.

Adamantly devoted to the aristocracy along with all of the finer art forms that city life offers even though he's broke and is never actually shown working on a play or teaching a class as he claims, Harrison eventually takes Ives under his paranoid and staunchly right wing, bringing him along on evenings when he serves as an escort to wealthy geriatric widows who pay him in fine meals, fancy parties, exclusive events and every once in awhile, their guest home in a warm climate.

Yet as secretive as Harrison is about his personal life that's filled with as many colorful characters as you'd expect in this '20s inspired contemporary universe, it's Dano's Ives who in fact seems to be struggling the most privately.

Despite a budding attraction to his perky modern day hippie activist coworker Mary (Katie Holmes) who works alongside Ives at an environmental magazine, Ives can't quite fight his growing confusion over his desire to wear women's clothing. Torn between his impulse to don lingerie and be a beautiful girl with his sexual arousal towards women as a man, Ives begins a strange big city quest to figure out just who exactly he is and where he belongs, all under the nose of his roommate.

And while the film boasts some delightfully humorous supporting turns by actors such as Dan Hedaya and John C. Reilly in particular who once again proves he can carry a tune with the best of them, overall, The Extra Man belongs to Kline's exuberantly off-the-wall turn as the catalyst for Ives' odyssey.

Proving once again that he is capable of generating our empathy even when we're not sure just what to make of his unusual character, Dano is able to hold his own among Kline throughout the film however fine acting alone can't mask the fact that Berman and Pulcini's self-consciously literary definition of overblown Wes Anderson inspired eccentricity is just a bit too quirky and unbelievably precious for its own good.

Obviously, the ode to Gatsby as filtered through Harold and Maude and other art films about unusual relationships is admirably ambitious. And while it must be said that the movie definitely keeps you entertained throughout as you're never sure just what deliriously bizarre character or situation will crop out of the woodwork next, unfortunately you soon realize that there's nothing all that memorable or moving about such a pursuit unless the filmmakers were trying to overdose on eccentricity.

In other words: Paul Dano, please call your agent.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.


Movie Review: Winter's Bone (2010)

Now Available to Own

As the primary caretaker of her twelve year old brother and six year old sister, seventeen year old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) tells her brother that he should “never ask for what ought to be offered.”

Unfailingly polite despite their lot in life, this particular rule of thumb works just fine when it comes to ensuring that the Dolly children never beg or guilt others into sharing food with them. Unfortunately when it comes to tracking down Ree's estranged out-on-bond father after the law informs her that they'll lose their home if he doesn't make his court date, Ree finds herself in the unwelcome position of having to ask for information that nobody-- especially her kin – would ever think of offering.

Even though a deadly code of silence runs deep in the Missouri Ozarks, Ree is determined to break through the barrier in order to keep from handing over her siblings to neighbors the way she's had to do with the horse they can't afford to feed if the bail bondsman turns them out of their property.

Given a short deadline by authorities who haven't been able to locate Mr. Dolly themselves only to reveal that they've heard he's cooking crank again, Ree sets out with the understanding that she could be facing the end of her short life simply by knocking on the doors of her relatives and father's associates who are devoted to maintaining silence as much as Ree is adamant about keeping her family together.

The sophomore feature length effort from Down to the Bone writer/director Debra Granik, Winter's Bone which she co-scripted with Anne Rosellini and based on the book by the same name from novelist Daniel Woodrell, has earned the top festival honors at Sundance and is an early Oscar front-runner as one of the best reviewed and most acclaimed titles to release thus far in 2010.

Emotionally taut and unflinchingly authentic, admirably giving off the impression that we're witnessing real life in a land and community that feels foreign to most viewers and is depicted with intelligent objectivity instead of Hollywood stereotypes, Winter's Bone recalls Frozen River and Sling Blade in its masterful portrayal of a simple tale of courage in the unlikeliest of places.

Likewise similarly unforgettable for its beneath the surface study of gender dynamics in the Ozarks, Winter's Bone is anchored by a stunningly powerful yet subtly heartbreaking turn by Lawrence who deftly moves between dogged determination in not backing down from oppressors and maternal instincts in teaching her siblings how to cook and use a rifle in case something happens to her. Additionally it features solid turns by its supporting cast, most notably John Hawkes as Ree's conflicted Uncle Teardrop who is torn between loyalty to his brother as well as his niece.

And despite the fact that, most likely due to its rather straightforward screenplay wherein the hero has only one quest and all subplots just grow like limbs branching out from the same tree, the work does feel like it needed a few more edits in the overly long first hour, it's still an achingly powerful testament to the human spirit and one woman's will to achieve a goal not for sport but for survival.

Currently embarking on an uphill battle of its own to lure intelligent audience members away from summer escapist fare to see realistic “country noir” and discover Lawrence's Oscar worthy role, Granik's film is sure to pick up momentum as word of mouth continues to spread, reminding you that you should never have to be asked and instead ought to offer to take this particular journey into the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

Movie Review: Ramona and Beezus (2010)

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Even though the film's title brings to mind former librarian turned author Beverly Cleary's novel Beezus and Ramona, screenwriters Lori Craig and Nick Pustay ignored that work completely and instead pulled plot points from Ramona Forever, Ramona and Her Father, Ramona and Her Mother, Ramona's World and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

Needless to say, with that many sources adding to the already immense pressure of bringing Cleary's beloved fifty year book series to life in its first major motion picture adaptation, at times director Elizabeth Allen's Ramona and Beezus feels like it's being pulled in numerous directions at the same time.

From abrupt tonal changes to uneven techniques that initially invite viewers inside the bigger-than-life imagination of the mischievous nine year old Ramona Quimby (Joey King) before Allen thankfully abandons most of the fantastical elements altogether to the screenplay's overly episodic nature, it takes awhile for audiences to completely click with this particular interpretation of Portland's Klickitat Street.

And even though the work struggles with the contradiction of perhaps too little going on in terms of the overall plot while at the same time being bogged down by subplots that cull memorable incidents from throughout Cleary's series, overall like its young heroine who often gets in trouble when her ambitious plans turn to chaos, you just can't help but find yourself smiling warmly because Ramona's heart is in the right place.

Admirably resisting the urge to modernize it all out of proportion with the way the timeless depiction of childhood was articulated in Cleary's vivid prose, Ramona and Beezus nonetheless feels quite contemporary as its central plot concerns the family's uncertain future when Ramona's father Robert (John Corbett) loses his job as a number cruncher and her mother Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) takes on the temporary role of primary breadwinner by working part time at a doctor's office.

Overhearing a financial disagreement between her parents, Ramona soon fears that the bank will literally take her family home away and although big sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) sets her straight about the house not being rooted from its foundation and put on a truck, Ramona decides that it's time she became the family's hero in a race to make money and keep the bills at bay.

From selling lemonade to going door to door offering car washes, Ramona soon realizes that working is much harder than she'd imagined, especially when the jeep belonging to her neighbor's Uncle Hobart (Josh Duhamel) rolls into the garage during a wash and receives a new, haphazard multi-colored paint job.

Likewise in conquering her fears on the playground so that they'll pay off in the real world when she discovers that she won't have Beezus to keep her safe from boogeymen at night after she gets her own room to talking her sweet Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) into taking her to audition for a peanut butter commercial, Ramona refuses to give up on her mission to restore Quimby order, even if it means attempting to make it to school on a day when she should be home in bed.

Filled with delightful performances, most notably by supporting scene-stealers Goodwin and Duhamel who are reunited in Ramona after appearing in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton years earlier, more often than not it's the sheer likability of the cast and the sunny demeanor of Cleary wholesome family fun that keeps you entertained.

Of course some of the problems faced by the relatives are admittedly solved far too rapidly such as in a wedding that is somehow planned and carried out without a hitch (save for the main one!) within a day.

However in the end Allen has crafted a bright, hard-to-fault festive celebration of Ramona's World that's sure to appeal particularly to Cleary graduates turned parents and aunts who can't wait to introduce the characters to their children... hopefully in print as well as onscreen in a double feature of the movie as well as a trip to the Beverly Cleary shelf of your local bookstore or library.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC;
All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com
Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I attended a free press screening of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.