The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

A career retrospective on Alec Guinness runs at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston this week, starting with the Ealing Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. There are a lot of actors and actresses today who get credit for switching between drama and comedy, and it seems there are more and more dark-and-gritty roles being taken by comedians these days (see: Jonah Hill, Chris Pratt, Jesse Eisenberg, Adam Sandler). It’s worked the other way, too, which is why Tom Cruise shows up in Tropic Thunder and ends up being the best part.

Guinness was something else. This isn’t a dramatic actor trying comedy any more than his role in Bridge on the River Kwai is a comedic actor attempting drama — it’s just Alec Guinness, for lack of a more detailed explanation, completely at home in both arenas. Granted The Lavender Hill Mob isn’t a laughfest of super-zany proportions (Guinness nailed those too, though, with Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers), but it’s a far cry from Kwai.

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The Affair 1.5

Last episode we talked structure, as the framing of The Affair began to shift under our feet by placing Noah’s and Alison’s tales end-to-front rather than side-to-side. This week shifts again: Alison’s story comes first, while Noah’s half-hour plays second fiddle. But this episode also contained a lot more story and character development, which served to make that structural flourish just an interesting oddity. While still not as gripping as the pilot, the sheer amount of plot progress in episode five makes it one of the best to date.

And we finally know who’s been murdered! We’ll hold until after the break to reveal the victim’s identity, for the sake of anyone still catching up. But it’s worth mentioning up front that tilting the hand this early can mean a) The Affair has a lot more in store for us or b) The Affair is going to get really boring really fast. Hell, based on some other reviews for the first half of the season, some people already find watching the cat-and-mouse-and-Pacey game akin to watching paint dry. But I’m going with a), Regis, final answer. So far The Affair hasn’t given much reason for distrust.

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Big Eyes (2014)

Big Eyes is about a fringe artist whose Gothic work about depressed, child-like characters becomes wildly popular, copied, and commercialized until it’s rendered a caricature of itself. And no, it’s not Tim Burton’s autobiography. It’s the bizarre true story of Margaret and Walter Keane and the fortune they made in the 1960s on paintings of children with, you guessed it, big eyes. Still, it’s not hard to analyze Burton’s attraction to this story. Each new movie “from the mind of Tim Burton” seems to parody his own aesthetic, turning it into a brand more than an auteur’s style. It would be far too easy  to say that Walter represents the big, money-hungry studios and Margaret is Tim, just victims of their own popularity.  But this is a movie that deserves to stand alone–and after Dark Shadows, I’m sure Burton wants it that way.

The audience might already be familiar with the weird 1970 court case in which Margaret sued Walter for slander while he stubbornly insisted that he was the original artist. But Big Eyes sheds light on the couple’s even weirder marriage. Margaret originated her iconic wide-eyed waifs when she was just a modest painter selling portraits on the street. But it was Walter who took credit for her work and turned them into a massively lucrative venture by selling cheap posters to the general uncultured public. The art world turned up their noses and scoffed, of course, but, as Walter passionately declares, the world is built on the lowest common denominator. Continue reading Big Eyes (2014)

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

“I never went in much for science fiction,” says a microbiology specialist near the beginning of The Andromeda Strain. His colleague, another world-renowned scientist, agrees, “Nor do I.” They’re on their way to the tiny, isolated town of Piedmont, Arizona, where the entirety of the population has suddenly and inexplicably dropped dead. A military satellite has dropped to Earth around there, and so the scientists are sent in to determine whether this contagion is the work of an alien virus or extraterrestrial organism. But they don’t get too carried away with this notion. They’re men and women of disciplined learning, after all, and their aim is to employ clear reason and decisive investigation to make sense of the disaster.

In a way, this exchange is a pretty perfect representation of many of the works of the late Michael Crichton. To most, Crichton is a genre writer (to most, actually, he might just be “the Jurassic Park guy”); that genre is science fiction, evidenced by Park and The Lost World, Westworld, Sphere, Timeline, Prey, and a few others. Crichton’s written plenty of thrillers outside the realm of science fiction, too, stories concerning train robbers and Japanese corporate espionage and pirates and eco-terrorism. But these never fully eclipsed Crichton’s reputation as a sci-fi guy, and whether he was writing prose or scripts his fascination with technological advancement always managed to shine through.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Chris Pratt dominated 2014. From reprising his role as the lovable Andy Dwyer on the hit comedy Parks and Recreation to his starring roles in blockbuster smashes The LEGO Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, which will garner the attention of this review, he seemed to be everywhere you looked. While I assert that Pratt was at his best in Guardians, his attempts at seriousness in various parts of the film felt a bit like he was trying too hard. But, his first scene in the film was absolutely brilliant, as he gets a little funky and sings into a space rat as though it were a microphone. This scene sets the stage for the tone of the remainder of the film: a collection of comical ridiculousness that you simply can’t take your eyes off of.

Guardians is a borderline Star Wars spoof, while at the same time paying all due respect to it. The genius of the film is found in the clever dialogue that evidences this point. One scene that comes to mind in particular is the one in which all the guardians decide to fight together against Ronan, all standing up to somehow state their dedication to the cause. Bradley Cooper’s hilarious Rocket comments, “Great. Now we’re all standing. A bunch of jackasses standing in a circle.” While the mocking of the cliché trope that is standing up to display emphasis is something I found to be tremendously clever, I also recognized the themes, such as devoting oneself to a just cause regardless of the dangers attached to doing so, that are so similar to those of the original Star Wars trilogy. Thus, Guardians is a sort of revitalized Star Wars reboot that stresses humor over drama but nevertheless paints a potent emotional portrait when it needs to, despite Pratt’s overacting at times. In addition, the film resolves itself in an incredibly familiar way. A band of outlaws come together to save the galaxy and are rewarded with impunity and heralded as heroes by the galactic authorities. Sounds a lot like A New Hope to me. To take it one step further, I honestly wouldn’t have been disappointed had this film instead been titled Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

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Agent Carter 1.1 – “Now is Not the End”

Marvel’s Captain America spinoff Agent Carter premiered tonight in two parts, bringing Hayley Atwell’s ’40s can-do spy Peggy Carter to the small screen. If your barometer for the show is the other Marvel Cinematic Universe cable tie-in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the quality of Agent Carter and the willingness of the show to shed those ties to the larger MCU. If your barometer is a true 1940s spy serial, you might be just a tad disappointed.

Peggy first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (set during WWII, when Peg has a passionate fling with Steve Rogers) and popped up again in The Winter Soldier (set in the present day, so Peggy’s old as hell). Agent Carter takes place immediately following the war, and scenes from First Avenger kickstart the pilot episode and continue to frame Peggy’s loss after Cap plunged into the ice at the end of that film. Squeezing Chris Evans into your show without actually paying to cast him, or creating a new contract or convincing him to film new scenes? Nice, Marvel.

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The Quick and the Dead (1995)

A quick glance at Sam Raimi’s filmography shows a greater preoccupation with iconography than with originality. He’s retread the old “cabin in the woods” and “superhero origin” tropes three times over (four if you count Darkman), yet, Robert Frost be damned, it has made all the difference. Through Evil Dead and Spider-Man, Raimi has evaded the title of “hack” to become both an auteur and blockbuster filmmaker, which is no easy feat when you’ve made Spider-Man 3. He manages to inject adrenaline and humor into genres that would die of exhaustion under any other director’s hand. As for The Quick and the Dead, the Western genre has only benefited from the Raimi treatment.

The Quick and the Dead reminds us of familiar Western figures straight away: the blind shoeshine, the bumbling barkeep, the merciless sheriff, the one-eyed ex-convict, and a flamboyant assortment of gunslingers. Of course it wouldn’t be a Western without the nameless hero, and fortunately we have Sharon Stone to give us an emotional anchor as The Lady amid a grotesque cast of caricatures. She arrives in town to exact revenge on the sheriff for the murder of her father, but gets roped into a quick draw dueling competition before she can do the deed. Continue reading The Quick and the Dead (1995)

The Affair 1.4

There were a couple new story elements and plot revelations in the fourth hour of The Affair, but like the third episode this one didn’t have nearly the same degree of crackle-and-pop as the opening segments. Let’s hope that’s not a new trend, and let’s dive right into episode four.

I’m somewhat surprised it’s taken me this long to mention any parallels to True Detective, as the structure alone is pretty much identical to that of The Affair – future-set interrogations framing a series of flashbacks that may or may not be true, an overbearing sense that the past and the present are linked by something we viewers just can’t grasp yet, etc. Now, though, the comparison is both unavoidable and deeper than the structure. The fifth episode of that first season (“The Secret Fate of All Life”) is the first time that the verbal recounting of the old case by Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is in direct conflict with what we’re actually seeing. Likewise, the memories of Noah and Alison are now starting to seem more and more dubious (or are they? Dun dun dun).

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Django Unchained (2013)

Nothing says “happy holidays” like an incredibly violent, utterly vulgar, yet strangely comedic look at slavery and racism in the Antebellum South. Quentin Tarantino’s latest effort has garnered exceptional critical support, seeming to morph together styles and tones from three of his previous cinematic achievements: Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Inglourious Basterds. The scope of the film is quite epic, occurring over months in various Southern states, yet it in no way takes itself too seriously. Instead, Django is extremely humorous and several of its minute details, when given closer examination, actually seem rather bizarre, almost finding itself belonging to the Wes Anderson genre of film. While dealing with a very serious topic and maintaining an ethically appropriate opinion of said topic, Djano truly reels in its audience with its Oscar-winning dialogue and impeccable acting. The film may seem controversial to some, but anyone really paying attention will easily be able to understand the stance the film is taking.

The film has a subtle but significant Reservoir vibe to it. The plot is intricate and well thought-out; dramatic irony (when one or more characters are aware of something that others are not privy to) is abundant; and there is even a particular scene in Django that is a directorial parallel to a different scene in Dogs. Let’s discuss the similarity in complexity of the plot. These movies are no rivals to Inception when it comes to complex storytelling, nor are they trying to be, but they do certainly contain these types of elements. Dogs places a police officer undercover in the mafia, thus tricking the mafiosos into believing that he is one of them. Django places an African American in the fourth largest slave plantation in Mississippi, posing as an expert in the well-regarded field of Mandingo fighting; in front of Leonardo DiCaprio, no less. This similarity simultaneously explains both the intricacy of the plot and the abundance of dramatic irony. And then there are the scenes using the slow-motion walk. If you do not recall what I am talking about, you now have an excuse to go rewatch these fantastic films.

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My Left Foot (1989)

Calling Daniel Day-Lewis the greatest cinematic actor of all time certainly isn’t a stretch, and his performance in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot is the reason why. Day-Lewis plays Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy. The only control Brown has over his body is his left foot. However, he uses this one appendage to achieve fame as both an artist and a writer. Throughout the film and in real life, Brown works through the adversity of his condition as well as the poverty of his large family. The movie is set mostly as a flashback; Christy’s life unfolds as his nurse, Mary Carr (Ruth McCabe), reads his autobiography while at a charity event with him.

The decision to set the movie as a flashback was a solid one as it shows the progress Christy makes in so many regards to arrive to the fame that lands him at the charity event. Also, the film does not focus much on the actual writing of the autobiography. Rather, the focus is more on his art. Thus, seeing his life through his own writing highlights his talent as a writer while also providing an appropriate backdrop for his story.

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