Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro
Screenplay: Shane Salemo, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone, based on Winslow’s novel
Cinematography: Dan Mindel
Music: Adam Peters
Director: Oliver Stone
The film is a kind of experiment to see if Stone can deliver a straightforward action thriller with the flair he brings to stories in which he’s more personally and politically invested, while not letting his politics and pretensions weigh it down. There were a lot of ways he could have gone with this, and unfortunately, while the results more or less meet minimum expectations, it’s doubtful it will be totally satisfying for either the existing Stone fan, or the moviegoer who happily commits to spending two hours with the likes of Taylor Kitsch or Blake Lively, with the promise of explosions and sex.
Kitsch is Chon, an Iraq War (II) veteran, acting now as both equal partner with, and enforcer for, friend Ben (Johnson) in their marijuana business. Ben’s idea was for Chon to smuggle Iraqi pot seeds back, and now, six years later, they’ve led to a booming business run out of Laguna Beach, CA, with THC levels six times the average weed. The two friends live together with O (Lively), short for Ophelia, a sweet, empty-headed girl who loves them both equally, feeling that Ben’s soulfulness (he spends time helping children in poor countries with his weed income) and Chon’s something-something (he left his soul behind in Iraq but really knows how to fuck) add up to her complete man.
The product is so good that it soon attracts the attention of the Baja drug cartel, run by Elena Sanchez (Hayek), and her men bring an offer of a three year contract to the boys, but as the offer comes after they send them a video showing them cutting off the heads of pot growers who ran afoul of them, Ben and Chon are rightfully distressed about the offer, and turn it down. They make plans to get out of the country with O, with new identities, but they’re not fast enough, and O is kidnapped by the cartel, to force the boys to agree to the deal, with O having to stay with the cartel for a year. Knowing they’re all dead when Elena has what she wants, they put a plan of rescue and revenge together, first hitting some of the locations where they receive money, and then trying to get O out. It should surprise no one that not all of the trio makes it.
It’s a great-looking film on a superficial level. Cool houses and clothes, pretty people like Kitsch, Johnson and Lively getting it on on nice couches or it lovely black stone tubs, with candles and sun streaming in through colorful, patterned fabrics. You want to hang out with these people, drinking a beer or taking a bong hit on their patio, looking out over the Laguna coastline. Why is beautiful Salma Hayek bothering these beautiful people with her ugly henchmen like Benicio Del Toro?
In a way, it’s nice that Stone doesn’t try very hard to ennoble the story, doesn’t try to shove a lot of facts about the failing drug war, or immigration, or Iraq, down the viewer’s throat. Travolta’s crooked DEA agent is just that, not a symbol of the DEA itself. Ben and Chon are just guys who made some success but got to the level where they couldn’t coexist peacefully with their competition and have to get out or get dead. There’s not much more to it than that.
But then, that’s where it would have been good for Stone, or someone, to do more with the script. Del Toro doesn’t create one of his weird, indelible characters here: he’s just a cruel Mexican thug, and not a very loyal one at that. There is some smart stuff with the complicated offer and shifting loyalties, where we see that the drug business is like any legitimate business, but Stone seems perhaps too aware that he was hired not to remake Traffic but to deliver a popcorn thriller featuring the star of Battleship. Having O narrate the story is problematic because she isn’t very smart, so our understanding of Ben, Chon and even herself is often limited to what we might expect from an early 20s SoCal party girl. She uses “wargasm” in the first ten minutes in such a way that you can tell someone thought it was really clever, but it isn’t. Ben and Chon are pretty believable as friends, but we’re meant to side with the previously-described-as-soulless Chon, a guy who takes violent action with military precision but no real thinking, over Ben, a nice guy who is somehow blamed entirely for O’s kidnapping, and who needs to prove to Chon that he can throw down and kill with the best of them, or he isn’t really a man. It’s a no-man-or-fuck-buddy-left-behind philosophy Chon and his soldier buddies adhere to.
A few scenes are spent on Elena trying to bond with O in a maternal way, as she is somewhat estranged from her own daughter, but although we’re given to understand O’s own parents don’t have time for her, Stone seems to understand that even a dimwit like O isn’t going to really make a connection with her head-chopping drug lady captor, and so the scenes serve as filler until the big rescue. If it’s consolation, although Johnson, Lively and Kitsch give shallow performances, they’re just doing what is asked of them, and to Stone’s credit, the action sequences are well done, and the film is well-paced. It’s not that much dumber, and better-looking, than fairly well-regarded recent thrillers like Safe House, but it’s probably a shame that an Oliver Stone film with Hayek and del Toro in it is so forgettable, though.
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Starring: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett
Screenplay: Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Based on the Novel by Ursula Parrott
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Music: Heinz Roemheld, Herman Stein
Director: Douglas Sirk
I’m becoming a fan of Sirk’s work, but as with other great stylists, the more over-the-top it is, the better. And the black-and-white There’s Always Tomorrow doesn’t attempt the scale of Technicolor classics like All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind.
MacMurray plays Clifford Groves, president of a toy company and a neglected husband and father at home. Wife Marion (Bennett) is nice but puts their three children ahead of him every time, frustrating his every attempt to get some alone time with her, and the kids take him for granted, too. Coincidentally, he runs into a former coworker, Norma (Stanwyck), and they spend a chaste evening in each other’s company. When Marion backs out of a trip to Palm Valley Cliff plans, he goes anyway, to meet a client and clear his head, and he runs into Norma again. His son happens to be there with his girlfriend as well, and finally takes an interest in Dad, but only because he suspects he’s having an affair. He’s wrong, but Cliff is developing feelings for Norma, and Norma, who had originally quit Cliff’s company because she had a crush on him, finds herself likewise tempted. But this isn’t the MacMurray/Stanwyck of Double Indemnity, and Norma turns Cliff down, knowing he’ll regret breaking up his family over her.
With wholesome MacMurray and Bennett, an almost-out-of-the-house eldest son, teen daughter and pug-nosed younger daughter, the film calls to mind a darker Father Knows Best. Stanwyck is strong and sensible but lacking any sex appeal; she doesn’t even flirt with Cliff. It’s basically all in his head. He’s just desperate for some affection, and in an astonishing rant to Cliff’s accusing kids, she turns the tables on them, blaming their neglect for Cliff’s wandering eye. MacMurray is also very good in his halting, earnest way, but also pathetic, as characters often are in Sirk’s films, clean-cut, well-dressed and seemingly together but utter slaves to their emotions. Depicting that loss of control, that lovestruck, ruinous abandon, is Sirk’s strength, and it takes both parties to work. Here, Norma never gives in. They have some laughs, one of them gets carried away, and the other puts on the brakes. If Marion had gotten a bigger part, had been shown waking up and fighting for her man, and if we had gotten to see how strong their bond was before it was tested like this, the film would have been stronger. As it is, it’s a mild diversion with a message of, “we should give a little more time to dear old Dad” that isn’t a great fit for a romantic melodrama.
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Starring: Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney
Screenplay: Jack Haley, Jr.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Music: Henry Mancini
Director: Jack Haley, Jr.
Until this film came along, there was little nostalgia for the Golden Age of Hollywood films. Movies came and went within days or weeks, replaced by others, and aside from some rare rereleases like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the only way to see old movies was on your local TV station’s Late Show or afternoon movie. That’s probably where I saw this one, with my mom, but hadn’t thought about it again until today. It was a big hit in 1974, rekindling an interest in the old musicals, and showing a new generation the talents of forgotten stars like Eleanor Powell, Esther Williams and Jeanette MacDonald.
The brainchild of Jack Haley, Jr. son of the actor who played The Tin Man in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, That’s Entertainment has the stars listed above filmed in and around MGM Studios, introducing and narrating information about various clips from MGM’s great musicals from the late ’20s into the late ’50s. Some of the sets look dilapidated in the modern shots, particularly the set from The Band Wagon, which Fred Astaire remarks upon. But there is little grumbling about MGM’s changing fortunes or the decline of the musical, nor is there much information on the filmmaking or how some of the amazing sequences were accomplished. It’s a relatively straightforward collection of clips, somewhat chronological but also arranged by theme or performer. “Singin’ in the Rain” dates back to the ’20s, so we get a bit of that, a bit of a ’30s Jimmy Durante rendition, and, much later, the definitive Gene Kelly version from the film of the same name, a simple number (at least for a performer of Kelly’s gifts) that’s nonetheless one of the great musical numbers of movie history, pure and joyous and, of course, helped immeasurably by the unique bits of business with umbrella and rainwater.
I responded to Kelly’s work most of all, and he closes out the film with a stunningly filmed dance with Leslie Caron from An American In Paris, but close on his heels (no pun intended) is the great Astaire. Oddly, there’s not a lot of him with Ginger Rogers, but his dances with Eleanor Powell and Kelly are great, too. I even warmed to some of the clips of the many films Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney made together, though I’m not in a hurry to see a complete film of theirs. As Peter Lawford notes, MGM forced some of its stars to appear in musicals, even if they had little ability to sing or dance, so we get a terrible tap dance by Joan Crawford and the modest singing of Jimmy Stewart. There’s plenty of corn, too, such as one outdoor Western number (I didn’t notice it being named) with the cowboys wearing brightly colored shirts and scarves—I noticed a hot pink one, which would have raised questions on the Ponderosa—but you kind of just have to embrace the silliness. It’s easy to do in small doses, when you’re just getting the best songs and/or dances. About the only number I found truly unpleasant was an otherwise brilliantly choreographed and filmed Busby Berkeley production that had many dancers in blackface. I don’t think a lot is served by sweeping ugly history under the rug, but I could have done with a different Berkeley number here. There’s also a lot of good young Sinatra hoofing and singing, and pretty much any classic MGM number one might remember, such as Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse, the dancing-on-the-ceiling Gene Kelly number, an amazingly gifted comedic dance by Donald O’Connor, or Astaire surrounded by the shoes dancing on their own.
Musicals aren’t a genre I seek out. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to the movies to see one, and I’ve only seen a few stage musicals. I don’t think I’ve ever owned a dvd of one, except maybe Grease. But with 30 years of musicals condensed into a little over two hours of well-chosen clips, That’s Entertainment is an unbeatable celebration of the genre. If you watch this film and don’t end up smiling at large portions of it, and being astounded by the talent on display, there is something missing inside you.
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Starring: Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Victor Jory, Maureen Stapleton, R.G. Armstrong
Screenplay: Meade Roberts, Tennessee Williams, based on the Play, Orpheus Descending, by Tennessee Williams
Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Music: Kenyon Hopkins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Tennessee Williams at his most overwrought and unfocused, the film finds Brando as guitar-playing drifter Val Xavier, who escapes the heat of New Orleans police for a small town, where he catches the interest of three different women. He resists housewife Vee Talbott (Stapleton) and hellraiser Carol Cutrere (Woodward), but he is taken with the kindness and sadness of Lady Torrance (Magnani), who gives him a job in the shop she runs with her cruel husband Jabe (Jory), who’s sweating and dying away upstairs.
Stapleton’s character is forgettable and just adds to the draggy feeling of the film, and it’s necessary, as her husband the Sheriff would antagonize a drifter like Val on principle. Williams gives Val a guitar and a song to sing, as well as would-be meaningful speeches about life and loneliness. Brando’s fine, but it feels like a performance he’s given before, and a comfortable Brando is less interesting than one who’s grasping for something new. Woodward is sexier than she usually portrays, but is so over-the-top her energy overpowers her scenes with Brando. He seems content to let her scream and gesture, but there is never a sense that he’s interested in her, which makes their scenes pointless and unpleasant.
Magnani isn’t an actress I knew before here, and it’s blunt but fair to say she gets by on talent, as her features are sharp and somewhat haggard. It’s odd that she and Brando get together, not just the difference in their ages and beauty but because while we understand her loneliness, we don’t really understand his. She’s a woman trapped in a marriage to a monster, but he’s like some sort of angel, someone too good and pure for this world. It just doesn’t really come off, and Lumet seems befuddled by the Southern Gothic setting and tone. It doesn’t play to his strengths at all, so what was a problematic story in the first place is made even more false.
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Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Ben Kingsley
Screenplay: Drew Pearce, Shane Black
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: Brian Tyler
Director: Shane Black
We begin with Tony Stark narrating a 1999 flashback, as a drunken Tony seduces scientist Maya Hansen (Hall) and blows off nerdy scientist Aldrich Killian (Pearce), both of whom will figure heavily into the story. We then learn Tony is having crippling, though brief, anxiety attacks, stemming from the alien invasion and his near-death experience in The Avengers. Tony has been avoiding dealing with the problem by throwing himself into work, hurting his relationship with Pepper Potts (Paltrow). Meanwhile, a terrorist named The Mandarin (Kingsley) is wreaking havoc around he globe, with James Rhodes (Cheadle) revamping his armor and name from War Machine to Iron Patriot, the Administration’s symbol of global strength and justice, intended to find Mandarin.
Things come to a head when Tony’s friend Happy (Favreau), is left comatose after an attack at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre by Savin (Dale), a man who can generate great heat and strength, who works for the newly cool Killian. Just as Maya returns to Tony’s life to warn him and Pepper, their house is attacked and destroyed. Tony barely survives and his malfunctioning operating system, Jarvis, sends him in his armor to a small town in Tennessee, site of a previous heat attack. There, with the help of a budding young science kid, Tony regroups and starts to figure things out.
Cowriters Black and Pearce craft a mostly compelling story out of bits of Warren Ellis’ Extremis storyline from Iron Man comics (with bits of David Michelinie’s and John Byrne’s Armor Wars and Armor Wars II), another damsel-in-distress subplot for Pepper, a villainous McGuffin, a cute kid and lack of resources reminding Tony of what he’s really all about, and lots of action setpieces.
Some have described IM3 as a return to what made the first film work, but it’s a little different. Whereas Tony’s crude armor provides the origin story for Iron Man in the first film, here Tony spends a lot of the movie out of armor or with just a few pieces of the armor, as he has to fight the Extremis-powered foes with quick-thinking. It’s a blend of espionage thriller and superhero film, and the results are strong. It helps that Black and Pearce bring a good deal of humor to the film, so that the tousled-head kid helping Tony section of the film is a lot of fun and not corny at all. Similarly, while Pepper does end up in danger, she gets a turn earlier in the armor that lets her show her strength and bravery.
Downey and Paltrow are always good together, and Cheadle is actually more convincing here as a soldier than in IM2, as he gets to be an action hero outside the armor. Pearce is okay as Killian, sort of similar to Sam Rockwell as a guy who wants to be as smooth as Stark but just can’t cut it. Dale and Hall are a bit overqualified for their pretty thin roles, but I’m sure they appreciate the exposure and paychecks. Miguel Ferrer as the Vice-President has such a small part/subplot that he probably could have been cut entirely with no real loss. Kingsley is pretty great, but the truth behind the Mandarin isn’t something I’d want to spoil, though I’ll say it presents some challenges for Black involving the changing tone of the film that I’m not sure he completely resolved. And I was unclear on just why Maya came to Tony’s house. If she was truly trying to warn him, then that doesn’t jibe with her withholding her connection to Killian until later. And if she was there to get close to Pepper so she could be kidnapped, well, there has to be a better way than showing up at a house that’s about to be destroyed by missiles. Certainly if Pepper survives and Tony doesn’t, there won’t be much trouble finding her and picking her up. If Tony survives, then Maya can’t do much, anyway. It just doesn’t work.
Maybe the oddest thing was that, after more than two hours of Black showing that he wasn’t just an ’80s/’90s relic but that a lot of those techniques could still be effective today, he ends with an extremely ’80s TV credit sequence that doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the film. Yes, there is a little scene after the credits, that, like The Avengers, is more of a joke than a tease for the next film.
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Starring: Chikage Awajima, Ryo Ikebe, Keiko Kishi
Screenplay: Kogo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu
Cinematography: Yuharu Atsuta
Music: Kojun Saito
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Ozu is a filmmaker I’m just getting into and I would cautiously say I know enough to know I can’t write with authority on all his strategies, how he compares with other Japanese directors of the same era, or recurrent themes. I sense that I can see Early Spring in another year or so and find more to write about, especially with more Ozu films under my belt, but here are my impressions.
The story is simple. Shoji Sugiyama (Ikebe) is a young but weary, married company man in Tokyo, countering his physical and spiritual exhaustion by gambling and drinking with his friends, and then with an affair with “Goldfish” (Kishi), so called because of her large eyes. We don’t see much of it, but it seems fairly passionless for Shoji, not exactly what he was seeking. This makes him detach further from wife Masako (Awajima), who grows suspicious, and is particularly hurt when he forgets to honor their dead son’s birthday. When Goldfish asks to speak with him one evening, having been confronted about the affair from friends, Masako knows something is up. She accuses him and then moves out. Meanwhile, he has been offered a transfer to the small village of Mitsuishi. Their marriage is left in flux when he moves out, but she soon decides to forgive him, showing up for what they both decide will be a fresh start.
Ozu has a distinctive style of filmmaking, using mostly low-angled, static cameras, with very closed-in compositions, and characters often facing the camera rather than in profile. He also finds ways to surprise the viewer, withholding information—some important—which could be frustrating in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Shoji becomes an enigma, a man well-liked by friends but who never commands attention. He seems to be going through the motions in all aspects of his life, even the affair, which we gather is pretty common in Tokyo society among younger men until their wives get them in line.
Despite a role that has her cross and put-upon most of the time, Awajima is really the heart of the film. We see in her a strong mind and will, a woman who doesn’t want to just follow tradition when it comes to her life and her marriage. She doesn’t just want a guy who brings home a paycheck, a guy who might go out with the boys unannounced, making her keep dinner warm. She wants a partner, and an honest, reliable one.
For her part, Goldfish is just naive, falling for a married man and thinking there might be a future there, and she receives a strong confrontation from male friends that might seem a little shocking today, as we tend to let people make their mistakes. ’50s Tokyo society looks down on adultery, and there is even the implication that Shoji’s boss suggested the transfer as a way to get Shoji out of the situation and not bring scandal to the company (where Goldfish also works).
While Shoji’s affair is clearly depicted as a mistake, it’s not all his fault. While Masako takes some share of the blame at their reconciliation at the end, the overall impression is that Shoji was hollowed out and directionless after the death of his child. The company, full of men similar to Shoji, has further robbed him of his identity and his vitality. He’s not a father anymore. He’s unsure how to be a husband again. He’s a worker and a guy who can be called upon to have a drink with. And, at his weakest, soul-hungry moment, he’s an adulterer. Aside from the work, always the work, he’s not really capable of filling any of these roles.
Ozu emphasizes the stifling nature of the Tokyo middle class with his rigid compositions, where almost every shot is made up of rectangles (bookshelves, doorways, cabinets). Everything is upright and narrow, and the people are expected to behave that way or the system will correct or expel them. It seems somewhat unfair that Masako has to endure three years in Mitsuishi, where there’s nothing to do, by Shoji’s admission, but at least they have each other.
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Starring: Butch Patrick, Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Candy Candido, Hans Conried, June Foray, Patti Gilbert, Shepard Menken, Cliff Norton, Larry Thor, Les Tremayne, Michael Earl
Screenplay: Norton Juster, Sam Rosen, based on the Novel by Norton Juster
Cinematography: Lester Shorr
Music: Dean Elliott
Director: Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow, Dave Monaham (live action)
It was odd to happen upon this one, as I recall the Jules Feiffer-illustrated book, but wasn’t aware of the film, despite being of an age when it should have played a lot on TV, its story of imagination and not wasting time encouraging kids to, um, stop wasting time watching TV and going out and using their own imaginations.
After a brief but odd live action sequence, where we get to see young Butch Patrick without Eddie Munster makeup, so bored and unobservant he ignores all sorts of dangers on his way home, our little hero finds a package waiting for him. It opens to reveal a tollbooth and a toy car, which transport him to an animated universe, where he will be called upon to rescue Rhyme and Reason, resolve tensions between warring kingdoms Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, and of course, meet odd characters and collect important talismans along the way.
Jones uses his standard ’60s animation style here, such as seen in his Tom and Jerry shorts and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, including vertiginous roads and all manner of oddly shaped creatures. There’s a Lewis Carroll kind of ridiculousness in the story of one kingdom where only words are important and another where only numbers are important, but there is no sense of wonder or delight. In fact, the film drags, struggling to maintain interesting across ninety minutes of anecdotal, mostly consequence-free incident. At one point, Milo and his watch dog, Tock, are sentenced to six million years in the dungeon by a wandering cop/judge/jailer called Short Shrift, but this is resolved immediately when the King of Dictionopolis calls the two of them to dinner.
Jones has good support from many of the best voice talents in the business, and some of songs are fun, but the best parts are often when he relies on classic shtick from his Warner Bros days (Chroma the Great conducting the sunset is pretty close to Bugs Bunny conducting). He knows funny, but it’s not clear if he or anyone involved know quite how best to make Juster’s pun-filled book into a feature. I love puns, but it’s one thing to figure them out yourself while you read, and another for them to be visualized and explained for you. Sometimes Jones has the right touch, and sometimes, as with Milo literally having to eat his words, when it falls flat.
In Jones’ defense, the book has an underlying scolding DNA that he can’t help but replicate in the film. The theme is that kids should never complain about being bored, because if they open their eyes and learn something, they’d realize they live in an interesting, beautiful world. And that’s fine, but there’s a real square old man quality to the satirical Dr. Kakofonous A. Dischord, who sells all the noise and unpleasant sounds so popular today (with the kids).
A moderately interesting effort from an animation great that wouldn’t be the worst way to pass a rainy afternoon.
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Starring: Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Susan Sarandon, Rae Dawn Chong
Screenplay: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Cinematography: Jas Shelton
Music: Michael Andrews
Directors: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
As a people, we want to make sense of a harsh, confusing and seemingly indifferent world. We want to feel our suffering serves a purpose, or be told who or what is causing that suffering. We want to feel we are not just consuming food and oxygen until a random time when we are suddenly extinguished and soon after forgotten. If our lives are unsatisfying and aimless now, we want to be told that perhaps there is a greater destiny unfolding right around the corner. We are looking for signs.
Jeff, who lives at home with his widowed mother, is looking for signs as well, but more actively than most of us. What we infer is probably dozens of viewings of the poorly-received M. Night Shyamalan film, Signs, intensified by weed, has convinced him his purpose will be made clear if he just pays attention to the portents. One day, he decides to follow what he perceives is a sign, a wrong number, which leads him to follow a man on a bus with the name “Kevin” on his jersey. Kevin doesn’t hold the answers—far from it—but he’s part of a journey that will bring Jeff into contact with his older brother, Pat, a very different type, a would-be big operator who is still working at a place where he has the company logo embroidered on his short sleeve work shirt. Pat’s need to feel like he’s in control of his life and going places leads him to make bad, impulsive decisions like buying a sports car he can’t really afford and, with Jeff, crashes almost immediately. The car was the last straw for wife Linda, and Jeff finds his journey to discover what sign “Kevin” has for him is curtailed by having to try to help Pat save his marriage. Or maybe it’s all part of the same journey, as these three as well as their lonely mom and her best friend and coworker, Carol, will find themselves drawn together in a traffic jam that gives Jeff what he’s looking for.
The filmmakers, Jay and Mark Duplass, have never failed to create films of warmth and authentic human behavior. This was their biggest budget yet, and they use it well, with a thrilling climax on par with movies costing many times what theirs cost, as well as the car crash that at least yields a funny scene that drives home how pathetic Pat is. More importantly, they get an excellent cast and use them to their strengths. Jeff is a muddled but sweet, earnest dreamer, so who better than Jason Segel? Uptight loser seething with anger? That’s Ed Helms. Susan Sarandon is sexy at any age—Judy Greer as well, come to mention it—but while their roles aren’t large, they’re given characters of greater depth than they often get, and it’s nice to see Rae-Dawn Chong get a nice part, too. It may not be a film of great sophistication, but it has staying power.
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Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Juri Jarvet, Vladislav Dvorzhensky, Nikolai Grinko, Anatoly Solonitsyn
Screenplay: Andrei Tarkovsky, Fridrikh Gorenshtein, based on the Novel by Slanislaw Lem
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov
Music: Eduard Artemyev
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Despite the director’s branding the film, ultimately, a failure, Solaris ranks up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the more thoughtful, challenging science fiction films, and shares with Kubrick’s film a similar theme of Mankind’s difficulty in communicating with an alien race.
Kris Kelvin (Banionis, resembling a bedraggled Estonian Paul Sorvino) is a psychologist called upon to travel to the space station that has been in orbit over the ocean planet of Solaris, as most of the crew has cracked under the pressure and left. We see Kris as a broken, detached man, wandering around the pond outside his old family home, lost in reveries of his wife Hari (Bondarchuk), now dead ten years. Kris’ father invites a friend over, Burton (Dvorzhetsky), who ad been part of the Solaris project many years earlier and was now a laughing stock for his report of seeing a giant toddler. Kris treats him with scorn and is upset that his father brought in an outsider on what is likely their final day together. Before leaving, Kris builds a bonfire of mementos, including photos of Hari, as if the memories are too painful for him to hang onto any longer.
When Kris arrives at Solaris, he finds the station in a state of casual disregard, the halls strewn with debris and some electronic relays pulled out of the wall. He is not met by anyone but soon finds Snaut (Snaut), who tells him that only he and Dr. Sartorius (Solonitsyn) remain, as Kris’ friend, Dr. Gibarian, has committed suicide. Snaut also warns Kris that there are other “guests” aboard the station he needs to be careful dealing with. After a restless night, Kris finds his wife Hari in his quarters, or a remarkable simulation. Unlike other films dealing with creatures imitating humans (monsters, androids, etc.), Tarkovsky works backwards, making it clear that this is not the real Hari and can’t be. He ups the ante by making her as alien as possible: she arrives in an outfit she couldn’t have put on herself and must be cut from, and as the audience surrogate, we trust Kris when he puts her aboard an outbound rocket toward certain death; later, she reappears and violently claws apart the metal cabin door when Kris sneaks off. But starting from these frightening shades of Hari, Tarkovsky patiently makes her more sympathetic,
Tarkovsky is in great command of his material here, using different tints for specific effects as well as occasionally cutting to the roiling, unknowable ocean of Solaris. The space station, with its clean lines marred by clutter, stands in stark contrast to the multicolored vibrancy of nature on Earth, where the pond shows the circle of life, with submerged, rotting branchs and writing, beckoning green rushes just under the clean, cold water. Tarkovsky also spends a chunk of time scanning over details from the Breughel painting, The Hunters in the Snow, showing primitive humans imposing their own violent order on nature. This, as well as shots recreating some poses from other Old Masters paintings, was apparently Tarkovsky’s attempt to show cinema was as vital and important as any other medium, but as arrogant as it probably sounds, I disagree with this idea, even as I find the results profound. As Snaut tells Kris at one point, humans don’t need to explore the cosmos, because all we are looking for are other humans. We are incapable of understanding other races or making beneficial connections with them, as evidenced by the suspicion with which the sentient ocean’s version of Hari is treated. Not only that, but the station’s library is filled with examples of quaint, dead human culture, tons of old books and even a brace of ancient dueling pistols on the wall. Mankind will never connect with Solaris or any other race because we bring our own narrow minds with us and refuse to let down our barricades and prejudices. With all due respect to Tarkovsky, he brought his own baggage to the film about cinema being an art form not looked upon as as important as fine art or classical music, rather than entirely embracing the medium on its own terms.
Or is it all so hopeless after all? The ending, which, like much of the film, requires some patient thought, and yes, the letting down of prejudices, suggests that for Kris Kelvin, there might be the possibility of, if not happiness, at least a real and satisfactory connection.
Solaris was as good and rich as I had hoped. Available on Criterion DVD/BluRay and streaming on HuluPlus.
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Georgia Hale
Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh
Music: Charlie Chaplin, Carli Elinor, Max Terr, James L. Fields
Director: Charlie Chaplin
The film he wanted most to be remembered for, The Gold Rush is the Platonic Ideal of Chaplin films, a perfect blend of innovative comedic set pieces and heart-tugging sentimentality. Chaplin plays his Little Tramp as one of the many looking to strike it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush, not that he spends any time prospecting. Instead, he just tries to survive, staving off an attack from the evil Black Larsen and befriending Big Jim (Swain), who has found a mountain of gold, if he can just survive the winter long enough to find an assayer and stake his claim. Meanwhile, the Tramp falls hard for Georgia (Hale), a saloon girl turned off by the rough manners of the typical prospecting clientele, who is first amused but eventually charmed by the gentle, romantic ways of the little fellow.
The film is notable for Chaplin’s famous “dancing rolls” scene, but while cute, it’s not nearly as funny as scenes where Jim and Larsen fight, a rifle unerringly being aimed at the Tramp no matter where he tries to hide, a hungry Jim hallucinating the Tramp as a chicken (a gag ripped off for countless Warner Bros cartoons afterward), Jim and the Tramp dining on a boiled shoe, or Jim and the Tramp slowly realizing that their cabin is hanging halfway over a cliff. It’s all hilarious stuff, and there are several more funny bits besides. And Chaplin also scores with a poignant scene where the Tramp is stood up for a dinner date on New Year’s Eve, waking up from the perfect fantasy about it to find himself alone, opening the door to hear the revelry of Georgia and everyone else. It’s one thing to be alone, but even worse to be alone but close enough to hear the sounds of others enjoying themselves.
Chaplin rereleased the film in 1942, adding his own narration in place of title cards, a lively score, and tightening up or changing some scenes, including changing the final shot. Normally, I’m in favor of letting well enough alone, but Chaplin doesn’t harm the film and arguably improves it, removing a needless complication to the Tramp/Georgia romance and presenting a sweeter final image. With the great humor of a character he’d already been refining for over a decade and the broad but sure strokes of romantic melodrama, Chaplin created a timeless masterpiece.
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