Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Movie Review: Star Trek--The Motion Picture

Star Trek has been described in science-fiction circles as the middle ground between the unabashed pulp fantasy of Star Wars and the philosophical science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1979, the original TV series received an upgrade to feature-film status with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The filmmakers, namely producer Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise, were clearly eager to identify it with the 2001 end of the genre spectrum. They went ridiculously overboard. The story takes place a few years after the end of the television series. A massive, destructive, and apparently omnipotent alien entity is discovered making its way towards Earth. The Star Trek crew’s ship, the Enterprise, is the only vessel in range to intercept it. This is a solid premise for a science-fiction adventure film, but the picture is too bloated with its own sense of importance to be entertaining. Action scenes are kept to a minimum, and the story seems less about drama than a preoccupation with philosophical blather, such as questions about the nature of one’s relationship to the Creator, the quest for knowledge’s role in the meaning of existence, and so forth. These never go anywhere worthwhile, and their conceit is insufferable. The screenplay, credited to Harold Livingston and Alan Dean Foster, also has little feel for the character relationships that helped define the TV show. A central dynamic was of the man-of-action Captain Kirk (William Shatner) finding a middle ground between his two main lieutenants, the coldly logic-minded Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the passionate, emotion-driven ship’s doctor (DeForest Kelley). That’s all but gone, and the other series regulars (James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig) are little more than extras. Like 2001, the film seeks to end on a moment of lofty existential transcendence, but it’s reactionary rather than hopeful--the threat has been contained--and it seems ridiculously pretentious. The film clearly follows 2001’s lead with other elements, and at times it’s blatantly derivative. One example is the leisurely, symphonic-music themed piece of sightseeing around an immense spacecraft; another is a prolonged effects-laden “Stargate” sequence. The film also copies 2001’s slow, deliberate rhythms. However, the effect here is tedium; there’s none of the grandeur that 2001’s director, Stanley Kubrick, was able to evoke. The picture was poorly received, and it proved a false start for the movie franchise; the series wouldn’t begin in earnest until the second installment, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The only thing introduced that proved worth keeping was Jerry Goldsmith’s magisterial score. The cast also includes Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. The cinematography is by Richard H. Kline. Douglas Trumbull oversaw the special effects.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Movie Review: Pretty Poison

Critics’ favorite, cult film, sleeper—these are all terms that apply to Pretty Poison (1968). This quirky film is an intelligently made psychological thriller. Anthony Perkins stars as a young man who was institutionalized in his teens, and is now getting a fresh start in a small New England town. He enjoys fantasies of himself as a spy, and in order to impress a pretty high-school student (Tuesday Weld), he begins acting the part. However, their playing out of his fantasies gets increasingly out of hand. The girl’s fun-loving air proves the mask of a psychopath. Industrial sabotage leads to murder, and the young man gets pulled further into the girl’s vicious conniving. The film, quietly and very effectively, pulls off a remarkable dramatic reversal. One starts with concern over the girl getting involved with this rather creepy misfit. However, one ends in complete sympathy with the fellow, and wholly caught up in the horror of watching their relationship upend his life. Director Noel Black, working from an excellent script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., keeps the pacing loose. The scenes are thoughtfully staged, and the fine use of the Massachusetts Berkshires locations helps the story breathe. Black emphasizes character drama over sensationalism every step of the way. The two stars are superb. Perkins is a little hard to take at first. He plays his character's oddball antics with an arch smugness, and it’s off-putting. But he also keeps the viewer aware of the fellow’s insecurities and fundamental decency. His carefully developed performance is a balancing act that’s key to the story’s overall power. Tuesday Weld dazzles. No performer can make giddy thrill-seeking seem more delightful, and as the film goes on, she turns that reaction inside out. The girl’s high-spirited, game-for-anything manner is at first charming, then startling, and ultimately terrifying. The film also stars Beverly Garland as the girl’s brusque mother, and John Randolph as the Perkins’ character’s probation officer. David Quaid provided the cinematography. The screenplay is based on the novel She Let Him Continue, by Stephen Geller.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Movie Review: Bull Durham

Bull Durham, Ron Shelton's 1988 directorial debut, is a wonderful romantic comedy, and perhaps the most entertaining movie about baseball ever made. Kevin Costner stars as Crash Davis, a thirtyish minor-league catcher who's called upon to mentor a promising, though dim-witted, young pitcher (Tim Robbins). Both catch the eye of a local teacher and baseball groupie (Susan Sarandon), who systematically has an affair with one player per season. It's her version of a mentoring relationship, and the goal is to give the player the best season of his life, all with an eye towards helping him graduate to major-league play. She settles on the pitcher, but her heart is with Crash. He's drawn to her, too, but he wants romance; he has no interest in being her project. Shelton's terrific script does a fine job of playing Crash's mentoring role off his antipathy towards the pitcher's relationship with the Sarandon character, but its real brilliance is in the wealth of offbeat moments and quirky detail. Shelton also gets superb performances from the three stars. Tim Robbins never fails to make his character's dopiness and headstrong behavior charming, and Sarandon and Costner both deliver what may have been career bests. Sarandon's character is an eccentric mix of literary pretensions, know-it-all expansiveness, and brazen sexuality, and she plays it all with the deftness of a master comedienne. Costner's role is less flashy, but he shows ace comic timing playing straight man to his co-stars, and he's strikingly charismatic as a romantic lead. The picture keeps one smiling from the first moment to the last. Ron Shelton was once a minor-league baseball player himself, and he couldn't have come up with a more delightful valentine to the game.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Movie Review: The Searchers

Director John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is a mainstay on lists of the best movies ever made, and it is perhaps the greatest picture in the Western genre. It is certainly one of the key American adventure films. The story begins in 1868, when a disaffected Confederate veteran (John Wayne) returns to his brother's home in Texas. Shortly afterward, the brother and his family are murdered in a Comanche raid on the house. There was one survivor: the brother's nine-year-old daughter, whom the Comanche have taken prisoner. Wayne's character and the girl's adopted adult brother (Jeffrey Hunter) embark on a quest to rescue her. There's no easy resolution, though: when they locate her years later, they find she's become a Comanche. The picture set the stage for the anti-heroic adventure films that came to dominate Hollywood in the decades that followed. The Wayne character is an abrasive, alienated misfit, and a vicious racist to boot. (It's easy to imagine anti-hero icon Clint Eastwood in the role, and he may have been more suited for it than Wayne.) The basic plot--an outsider searching for a girl who's been taken from her family, only to find she's been assimilated by the people who have taken her--has been lifted by innumerable films and TV shows since. The picture also set the standard for epic-style location shooting. Most of the picture was shot in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border, and the use of the landscape pretty much defines the word "spectacular." The scenery would be awe-inspiring by itself, and Ford and his cinematographer, Winton C. Hoch, make it even more impressive by effectively integrating it with the action. It's one of the few pictures that's worth seeing for the visuals alone. The film also stars Ward Bond, Vera Miles, and as the blue-eyed (!) Comanche chief, Henry Brandon. Natalie Wood plays the kidnapped girl at 14; her sister Lana plays the girl at nine. The screenplay, based on a novel by Alan Le May, is credited to Frank S. Nugent. Max Steiner provided the score.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Movie Review: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum from a script by Graham Moore, is a watchable but fairly substandard piece of award bait. This biopic of British computer-science pioneer Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) has two tasks. The first is to dramatize Turing's behind-the-scenes heroism in World War II. He headed the team of cryptographers who cracked the Enigma code, a purportedly impenetrable cipher system used by Nazi Germany in all its communications. (The solving of the code is estimated to have shortened the war by at least two years and saved millions of lives.) The film's second task is to portray Turing as a martyr to the social mores of the time. He was homosexual, and a few years after the war ended, he was prosecuted for indecency, subjected to a dubious form of hormonal therapy as punishment, and he shortly thereafter committed suicide. Tyldum and Moore do a poor job of reconciling their two goals. They repeatedly interrupt the Enigma project narrative with flashbacks and flash-forwards. The flashbacks tell of a near-romantic friendship the adolescent Turing had with another boy at boarding school, while the flash-forwards deal with his prosecution and its aftermath. The time shifts are confusing at first, and they don't add much to the viewer's understanding of the Enigma story. Turing's homosexuality isn't relevant to the Enigma narrative at all. It's only referred to when he tells other characters about it; he's never shown taking a romantic interest in another man. The Enigma story, at least as presented, isn't terribly interesting in any case. Several of the scenes leading up to the code’s solution are hackneyed filler--Turing’s inability to get along with his co-workers, conflicts with the military brass, and so forth. And one can't take it seriously as history. There are just too many scenes that ring false. The most absurd moment is perhaps when Turing's team, in order to protect Allied strategic interests, decides to withhold news of the breaking of the code from their military superiors. (This and many other things in Moore's script have no historical basis.) The film isn't even that interesting as an actors' showcase. Apart from the purring-voiced Mark Strong's too-short turn as British intelligence chief Stewart Menzies, none of the performers are especially compelling. Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and the other cast members do solid work, but apart from Knightley's amusingly delivered "Oh" during a briefing scene, they aren't very memorable. The film has solid production values, and Tyldum keeps the pace humming, but that's about it. The script is nominally based on Andrew Hodges' biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. The cinematography is by Óscar Faura; Maria Djurkovic is credited with the production design.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Movie Review: Terms of Endearment

Until its shamelessly tearjerking final act, Terms of Endearment (1983) is an entertaining, quirkily funny treatment of the close, if stormy, relationship between an uptight middle-aged widow (Shirley MacLaine) and her unpretentious adult daughter (Debra Winger). The picture follows them through the daughter’s marriage to a philandering college professor (Jeff Daniels), the mother’s affair with an astronaut neighbor (Jack Nicholson), and the daughter’s assorted domestic dramas, including a brief fling with an insecure banker (John Lithgow). James L. Brooks, who wrote and directed, was previously known for the TV sitcoms Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the picture isn’t far removed from their style. Oddball characters of varying eccentricity are played off each other for pleasantly contrived humor, and the actors are directed to stay loose, breathe with the material, and shine. It’s enjoyable enough for a viewer to forget about the film’s distastefully manipulative closing section. As with Brooks' sitcoms, the cast is first-rate. Debra Winger is probably the most impressive performer; she’s an astonishingly vibrant presence as the daughter, and in her quieter scenes, the character’s feelings seem to be emanating through her skin. Shirley MacLaine plays the cantankerous mother with terrific, almost show-stopping skill; she’s perhaps a bit too theatrical at points, but she demonstrates time and again how to use her timing for maximum comic and dramatic effect. As the astronaut, Jack Nicholson isn’t called on to play much beyond his standard over-aged bad-boy persona, but he may never have handled it as hilariously as he does here. John Lithgow’s earnest wistfulness is note-perfect, and while Jeff Daniels isn’t given much to do beyond playing straight man to the two female stars, he certainly holds his own opposite them. Among the behind-the-scenes artisans, production designer Polly Platt deserves special kudos; the mother’s grotesquely overcultivated backyard garden is witty perfection. The screenplay is based on Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel. (The Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, and Jeff Daniels characters first appeared in McMurtry's 1970 novel Moving On; Jack Nicholson's role was created by James L. Brooks for the film.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Movie Review: Still Alice

Julianne Moore finally won a belated Best Actress Academy Award for her work in Still Alice, and that’s pretty much all the film is notable for. It’s a tastefully made melodrama about a middle-aged Columbia professor (played by Moore) and the efforts of her and her family to cope after she develops early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her life is close to perfect--a prestigious career, a happy marriage, loving relationships with her adult children--and her fulfillment in it gradually and entirely slips away. Beyond the reversal of fortune the story begins with, there’s not much in the way of irony or dilemma; the film just tracks the professor’s deterioration and plays it for sentimental effect. The only scene that rises above the ordinary is when she tries (and fails) to follow through on a suicide plan without any awareness of what she’s doing; it’s darkly farcical and devastatingly poignant all at once. The rest of the picture is fairly conventional, but it’s well done for what it is. Moore capably assays her role, as does Alec Baldwin as her husband, and Kristen Stewart, who plays their bohemian youngest daughter. The couple’s other two children are played by Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish. The screenplay, by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is based on the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Movie Review: Brief Encounter

It is not enough to say that the films of British director David Lean are well realized; they often feel more fully realized than seems possible. His extraordinary command of detail can be felt in every aspect of a production. Sets, locations, costuming, music, lighting, shot compositions, staging, editing, and, of course, dramatic effects--they are thought out and presented with the utmost care and meticulousness. His work sets the standard for storytelling craftsmanship. It's true of the spectacles for which he's most famous, and it's also true of small-scale efforts such as 1945's Brief Encounter. Adapted and expanded from the Noel Coward play Still Life, it tells the story of two married upper-middle-class train commuters (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) who meet and, in spite of themselves, fall in love. Lean builds the film around Johnson's extraordinary performance; she fully catches the viewer up in the agonizing conflict between her blossoming affection for the Howard character and her deep sense of commitment to her marriage and children. Every other element of the picture, from the richly atmospheric depiction of the train station to the inspired use of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, serves to enhance the dramatization of the woman's dilemma. This is one of the most powerfully intimate love stories ever filmed. The performances by Howard and the supporting players are uniformly excellent. The screenplay is by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame. Robert Krasker provided the beautifully moody cinematography.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Movie Review: Rome, Open City

This 1945 Italian melodrama, about the World War II underground resistance in Rome, is as pulpy as the gaudiest Hollywood thriller. The director, Roberto Rossellini, shot it in strictly-from-hunger circumstances. The lighting is variable, several of the actors are non-professionals, and since there was no money for sets, the action had to be staged in actual streets, buildings, and apartments. The documentary-like atmosphere Rossellini captured--the style was dubbed Neo-Realism--became a hallmark of the existentialist aesthetic and revolutionized the art of film. Rome, Open City has a fair claim to being the single most influential movie made after World War II. It's such an important part of cinema history that one may feel trepidation about approaching it as an entertainment. But the picture is entertaining. The gritty detail and sense of immediacy largely redeem the hackneyed contrivances of the plotting, which includes resistance fighters on the run from the Nazis, a priest playing a central role in the intrigues, and a resistance hero being betrayed by his lover. If the film were more slickly made, it would seem laughably trashy. Some elements, such as the seductively chic lesbian Gestapo agent, may have one chuckling regardless. Others, like the scene in which a pregnant woman is shot to death in the street, prompt conflicting reactions. One may think this particular moment devastatingly powerful or offensively over the top, or perhaps both. Sergio Amidei is credited with the script. (Federico Fellini contributed some dialogue and other small bits.) The large cast includes Anna Magnani as the ill-fated expecting mother, Aldo Fabrizi as the stealthy priest, and Maria Michi as the treacherous girlfriend. Renzo Rossellini provided the cheesy thriller-style score.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Movie Review: The Best Years of Our Lives

Director William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives has a promising subject: the experiences of three World War II servicemen while they readjust to civilian life. Dana Andrews plays a de-commissioned Air Force captain who was a bombardier during the war. Fredric March co-stars as a middle-aged banker who served as an Army infantry sergeant. The third protagonist is a young sailor (Harold Russell) whose hands were replaced with prosthetic hooks following a ship explosion. (Russell, a non-professional actor, was an actual double amputee.) The film deliberately eschews an upbeat treatment of the men's circumstances. The bombardier comes from a working-poor family and has no marketable skills; he can only find work as a drugstore floor associate and food-counter server. The banker struggles with alcohol abuse and doubts about his family and profession. The sailor feels shame over the challenges his disability creates for his loved ones. One wishes the film were better than it is. The dramatic situations, such as the banker’s conflicts with executives over veterans' loans, or the unhappily married bombardier’s growing involvement with another woman, are too simply conceived and too cleanly resolved. The negative aspects of alcohol abuse are downplayed; drunken behavior is tastelessly used for comic relief. The picture actively shies away from leaving the viewer with any moral ambivalence towards the characters. The attempts at allegory, such as the bombardier walking through an airfield filled with idled, stripped warplanes, are generally heavy-handed. But for all the film’s flaws, it’s an affecting piece of work. The men’s alienation is powerfully rendered at times, and this stays with one long after the picture is over. It was an enormous popular success and a multiple Academy Award winner, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fredric March and Harold Russell respectively won the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor prizes. The cast’s standout, though, is Teresa Wright, who gives a richly expressive performance as the banker’s adult daughter. Robert E. Sherwood is credited with the screenplay, which was based on the novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor. Gregg Toland was the cinematographer. Other cast members include Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, and Hoagy Carmichael.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Movie Review: The Southerner

The Southerner, a 1945 Hollywood effort by the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, has a gritty beauty. Its sympathetic though unsentimental portrayal of U. S. tenant farmers has much the same tone as Jean-François Millet's paintings of rustic life in France. Zachary Scott stars as a seasonal farm worker who decides to begin a new life as a sharecropper. The house on the plot he rents is a rundown hovel, and the ground is harsh and untilled. But he, his wife (Betty Field), his grandmother (Beulah Bondi), and his two young children make a dedicated go of it. Their travails are many--a hard winter, one child's illness, sabotage from a resentful neighbor (J. Carrol Naish)--but they maintain their determination to see things through. The happy times are there as well, such as the beauty of the blossoming fields, the affectionate hijinks at a relative's wedding reception, and the use of a giant catfish to settle a feud. Many filmmakers would treat this material with a patronizing eye, but not Renoir; his magnanimous sensibility suffuses it all. His cinematic mastery is also on full display. The action is staged to take maximum advantage of the deep-space compositions, and the visuals always keep one aware of the farmers relative to their environment. They're sometimes the land's masters, and sometimes its fools. Zachary Scott, best known for playing cads and scoundrels, embodies the quiet nobility of the farmer protagonist as completely as can be. The screenplay, attributed to Renoir, is based on Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a 1941 novel by George Sessions Perry. Hugo Butler wrote the preliminary adaptation. William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson made uncredited contributions. The fine cinematography is by Lucien Andriot.