Category Archives: Film

Film: Mirage

An intriguing, Twilight-Zoney thriller, Mirage (1965) is definitely a product of its era, but it’s quirky and still quite watchable. Gregory Peck stars as David Stillwell, an accountant who works in a New York City office building. When the building’s power goes out, Stillwell attempts to leave and bumps into a mysterious woman (Diane Baker) as he’s descending a darkened staircase. She claims to remember him, but he’s never seen her before – baffling enough, but it gets worse when she races off into a sub-basement that he later learns doesn’t even exist. This is just the first of several reality-bending mysteries that begin to plague him, as he gradually comes to grips with a bizarre case of amnesia. Meanwhile, he finds himself increasingly entangled with nefarious strangers who seem to know exactly who he is – even as he doesn’t know himself.

Putting an interesting spin on the Cold War/nuclear era psychological thriller, Mirage is modest but clever, with a twisty, disorienting plot. Its sensibility and black-and-white photography reminds me a little of early John Frankenheimer. In the end, I’m not convinced it coheres structurally, and it’s inconsistent tonally. But I kind of didn’t mind; it’s still fun trying to make sense of Stillwell’s nightmarish dilemma, and anyway the thematic resolution is satisfying in spite of the plot’s loose ends. Meanwhile it’s got a fun cast of familiar character actors from the era, including George Kennedy, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Weston, and the great Walter Matthau as a droopy gumshoe Stillwell hires to help him. An entertaining, old-fashioned mystery.

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Film: Save the Date

As much as I adore Alison Brie and Lizzy Caplan, I couldn’t find much to love about Save the Date (2013), a middling affair that wastes its talented comedic cast in a blasé relationship tangle. Sarah  (Caplan) is moving in with her long-time boyfriend Kevin (Geoffrey Arend), but even on the way over she’s starting to get cold feet. Meanwhile, Sarah’s sister Beth (Brie) is the opposite – enthusiastically planning her marriage to the drummer in Kevin’s band, Andrew (Martin Starr). With commitment in the air, Kevin pushes Sarah too quickly toward the next level, but Sarah’s a major commitment-phobe; and so she panics, rushing into a rebound relationship with a smitten admirer, Jonathan (Mark Webber).

That’s about it, really. Save the Date is low-budget, low-key, and low-frills, an unmemorable film about sisters taking different romantic paths, and trying to figure out their relationship to each other. But it never catches fire: it’s not quite funny, not quite dramatic, not quite moving, not quite interesting. I think it’s shooting for quirky, indie insight, but it plays out generically, a sequence of bland, thirtyish life experiences. It’s well played by everyone, especially Caplan in the central role, but the cast has precious little to work with. A dud.

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Spy 100, #17: Dr. No

Dr. No (1962) definitely sets the tone for the James Bond series, but compared to what would follow it’s practically restrained. It kicks off when a British intelligence agent named Strangways goes missing in Jamaica. MI6 sends in the debonair James Bond (Sean Connery) to find out what happened. Bond immediately finds himself targeted for assassination, but deftly sidesteps every attempt on his life as his investigation drives him inexorably toward Crab Key, a remote Caribbean island owned by Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman). With the assistance of CIA man Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), a local named Quarrel (John Kitzmuller), and the beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), Bond makes his way to the island to solve the mystery and save the day.

Dr. No is low (relatively speaking) on smug sexism, smarmy one-liners, and skiffy gadgetry – all to the good – and I found it interesting viewing, not just in the context of Bond history, but spy film history. It’s full of classic, iconic tradecraft, and one can see its influence stamped all over the canon. The location photography is gorgeous, and there’s a confident gloss to the production. It’s also interesting to contemplate other directions the series might have gone, based on this first, toned-down sample.

Despite these assets, though, I found the film kind of a slog. The plot is simplistic, and the pace is positively glacial – not uncommon for films of this era, of course. Typically this wouldn’t bother me, but here it does, probably because I find the franchise so emotionally hollow and hard to invest in. On points it’s probably one of the better Bond films I’ve seen, harmlessly watched, but ultimately I just found it more evidence of my allergy to this series.

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Film: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

The Italian crime drama and satire Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is very much a product of its era, but it’s not entirely without contemporary relevance. When a police inspector (Gian Maria Volonté) brutally murders his mistress, Alexandra (Florinda Bolkan), he leaves plenty of clues to hang himself. But as the investigation progresses, the questions arise: will the police ever charge him, and does he even have any intention of getting away with it?

With its vibrant color palette and playfully sinister Ennio Morricone soundtrack, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion is an audio-visual feast, probably best watched today as a why-done-it; the fun is in figuring out what the inspector is up to, and what specifically drove him to his crime. I particularly enjoyed the meticulous, silent opening sequence, which is  pure visual story-telling that sets up the mystery well. But past the quirky plot, it’s also a penetrating character study about a disturbed individual, and a political allegory critiquing the psychology of an authoritarian police state.  While the commentary is surely specific to Italy in 1970, it certainly still resonates today in a broader context. It does drag on a bit toward the end, and the gender and sexual politics are, uh, unfortunate by today’s standards. But overall it’s a rewarding film: disturbing, darkly funny, and politically scathing.

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Film: John Dies at the End

This was almost an awesome movie. John Dies at the End (2012) sings along cleverly for much of its run, but ultimately fumbles the ball about twenty yards from the end zone. It’s a rewrite or two away from being a great cult film, darkly comic SF; instead it’s merely an amusing romp, occasionally ingenious but all over the map.

David (Chase Williamson) is your typical quirky slacker hero, with a twist: he seems to have bizarre psychic abilities. He uses these to dazzle skeptical feature reporter Arnie Blondestone (Paul Giamatti), then tells Arnie his story in disorienting, time-jumping flashback. Turns out David’s powers started when he — and his friend John (Rob Mayes) — were dosed by a mysterious alien organism, which acts as a psychotropic drug on humans. The result is to have your perception “unstuck in time,” essentially seeing past, present, and future all at once, an “ocean” rather than a continuum. His story reveals how he gained this power, and how it enabled him to save the world.

The film lurches awkwardly out of the gates, but it really starts to gel when the origin of the alien drug comes into play: how David and a number of others were infected at a keg party, the after-effects of the infection, and the efforts of a no-nonsense detective (the terrific Glynn Thurman) to unravel what the hell is going on. The script’s dialogue is rife with skiffy gobbledygook that’s often funny and occasionally poetic, and for a while it looks like there might be a brilliant structural endgame in the works. Alas, it all goes off the rails in the final act. The careful construction of the middle stages is wasted in a silly, sloppy, over-the-top finale that involves  an alternate universe, a giant alien, an incongruous subplot involving a world famous mentalist (Clancy Brown) — it’s just a mess.

Which is unfortunate, because until they cross over, I was really grooving on the film: it’s unpredictable, clever, and tonally odd, and it had the potential to be brilliant. Instead it’s just a inventive, messy buddy fantasy, from the Bill & Ted school:  funny, kinetic, but far from great.

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Film: The East

I watched The East (2013) because…well, how could I not watch a film called The East? It’s also a spy movie, of sorts, and a pretty good one.

Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Jane, a promising young recruit for a private intelligence firm. She gets her big break when the firm’s chief (Patricia Clarkson) selects her for a high-profile assignment: infiltrating an eco-terrorist group called “the East,” which has been waging guerilla PR warfare against major corporations. Under the cover name Sarah, she works her way into position to become a recruit, finds her way to the East’s hidden base of operations…and starts to sympathize with their cause.

If I were to revise the Spy 100 list, I would definitely add The East, particularly for the variety it brings: private intelligence contracting, eco-terrorism, and corporate espionage are unique angles that the film deploys well. The first half of the film is the most effective, when the mystery is still hazy and Sarah’s investigation drives the pace. The culture of the eco-terrorist group (“the East”) is a weird sort of hippy-dippy extremism, but it’s entertainingly rendered, and populated by nicely played and sympathetic characters. The players — Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Aldis Hodge, and others — do a nice job selling the group’s mission and community.

Alas, later on I thought the seams started to show. The film’s anti-corporate, environmental message is a bit obvious, for one thing. And while the script tries to paint Sarah as a moderate, caught between wanting to stop the East’s dangerous stunts and seeing the point of them, she does come off as pretty naïve — especially when Clarkson, in a wonderfully callous performance,  reveals how she does business.

So it’s well performed, with a strong premise and a quick pace, and the mystery engages, but unfortunately it lacks subtlety and its virtuous message is a little too preachy. The drawbacks didn’t exactly squelch my enjoyment, but they did mitigate my enthusiasm.

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Film: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Stieg Larsson’s trilogy concludes with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009), and while it’s perhaps the least satisfying individual “film” (more on that below), it does cap off this memorable series effectively.

The explosive events of The Girl Who Played with Fire left Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) bruised, battered, and in policy custody, still facing trial for her supposed crimes.  Her actions have also stirred up a secret government organization, who still see her as a threat and are maneuvering to have her silenced. Meanwhile, the team at Millennium – urged on by reporter Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyquist) — works tirelessly to prepare an issue devoted to Lisbeth’s story, and supporting her innocence. This adds the magazine to the conspiracy’s hitlist, and entangles Blomqvist with a law enforcement task force working to shut down the group Lisbeth has exposed.

Rapace and Nyquist again anchor an effective cast, in a story that builds organically on the earlier events.  Like the other movies, I found it disorganized as a self-contained film, but the structural decisions make a lot more sense to me now that I know it was originally a six-episode TV series that was recut for theatrical release.  (Thanks, Dad!  Next time I’ll do my homework.) As such, it worked as the conclusion of an ongoing saga, particularly as it pertains to Lisbeth’s tragic history, and to the long-distance romance between its star-crossed-and-separated heroes. If I rewatch this someday, I’ll probably watch the extended cut, which is evidently the official version, in this case. I suspect that will obviate many of the problems I had with the earlier parts of the story.  Oh well, live and learn!

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Film: The Heat

The Heat (2013) shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but I guess it’s a sign of how far Hollywood hasn’t come that a female buddy-cop movie can feel so unusual. Sandra Bullock is an arrogant, hotshot FBI agent named Sara Ashburn. She’s angling for promotion, but poor interpersonal skills prompt her boss to send her to Boston, there to work a case with the local police.  Enter Detective Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), a foul-mouthed badass familiar with the neighborhood — and she doesn’t exactly play nice with others, either. Her slobby, out-of-control behavior is the exact opposite of Ashburn’s buttoned-down, book-read approach, so naturally…well, you get the idea.

Structurally the script is pretty formulaic, but plot isn’t the point here. The movie succeeds on the performances of Bullock and McCarthy, who have terrific chemistry and comic timing together. I tend to prefer their verbal exchanges to the physical humor, but both are well executed, and the movie has an infectious energy to it. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that the film’s writer, Katie Dippold, is a veteran of Parks & Recreation; Ashburn’s awkward competence is very Leslie Knope, and the film has a similar touch for character.) A fast, funny comedy.

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Film: Frozen

For this year’s Christmas movie outing we saw Frozen (2013), a beautifully animated musical from Disney. In the kingdom of Arendelle, the elder daughter of the king and queen, Elsa (Idina Menzel), secretly possesses the power to create and control ice and snow. When her powers accidentally injure her little sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa is sequestered from everyone to and keep her magic a secret from the world. Years later this strategy backfires when tragedy forces Elsa’s ascension to the throne — and an emotional encounter with Anna causes her to lose control of her powers in a very public way. In the middle of summer, she casts Arendelle into a deep freeze and runs away.  Anna, determined to regain her sister’s love and save the kingdom, sets off after her.

I wasn’t particularly enamored of the musical numbers, but overall Frozen is pretty great, particularly in its gorgeous visuals: the world is beautifully rendered, with sweeping vistas and memorable setpieces. There’s a great mix of humor and heart, the characters are nicely defined and likeable, and there’s a refreshing message from its female heroes. There are also some surprising and structurally satisfying plot twists late in the story.  This type of film isn’t generally in my wheelhouse, but I quite enjoyed it — an entertaining and well executed film.

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Film: The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

I should have learned my lesson after the first film.  But there was enough buzz about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) being an improvement that I decided to give the series another chance. Uh, nope. What a waste.

The Desolation of Smaug is part two of Jackson’s indulgent Middle-earth fan fiction, involving the quest of a band of intrepid dwarves — led by heir apparent Thorin (Richard Armitage) — to reclaim the mountain kingdom of Erebor.  Their secret weapon is a brave young hobbit named Bilbo (Martin Freeman). In this installment, Thorin, Bilbo, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the rest travel to Erebor to confront Smaug and recover the Arkenstone, which is key to restoring the dwarves to power. Along the way they argue with elves, battle orcs and giant spiders, and befriend a smuggler. At the end there’s a dragon. I think that about covers it.

Yeah. I really, really disliked this movie. It’s bloated, flat, and dull as rocks. It lacks pace, coherence, and emotional depth. Its setpiece sequences play out like video game levels, full of violence but no jeopardy, since all the characters are indestructible. The cinematography is murky and unwelcoming; it’s not even pretty to look at. But mostly, the film lacks character. The series’ one asset in this regard was Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, but The Desolation of Smaug often forgets he exists. The script gives equal weight to unnecessary, padded subplots. One involves Gandalf running around with Radagast (Sylvester McCoy). Another involves an unlikely love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and the dwarf who looks like a grunge rocker from 1990 whose name escapes me.  Even the anonymous mass of CGI orcs tracking the party gets an ineffectual turn on the subplot dance floor. All these diversionary threads do little to enhance the story; they don’t even adequately distract from the fact that the core plot is a straight line with wandering monsters.

Does the film do anything right? I’m disinclined to give it much credit, but forced to choose something I’d single out Tauriel — a female character who may have been conceived to make up for the mishandling of Eowyn in the first trilogy. She is engaging and formidable, and Evangeline Lilly has more charisma than all the dwarves combined. Lee Pace has a fun turn as the nasty elf king Thranduil.  And the dragon is impressively rendered.

But those three tick-marks hardly make up for the rest of this mess. I have officially learned my lesson, this time: no more Peter Jackson for me, thank you very much. Yuck.

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