Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday at the Movies - April 30, 2012

Welcome to Week Eighteen of “Monday at the Movies.” Just when you thought we were out, we’re pulled back in to the world of The Godfather!

The Godfather: Part II (1974) – There are those who say the sequel is better than the 1972 original. I don’t know about all that (I’m incredibly fond of the first Godfather), but Part II is every bit as good as the film that preceded it. Simultaneously a prequel and a sequel, Part II juxtaposes the rise of immigrant Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) with the tenure of his son Michael (Al Pacino) as he contends with moves for legitimacy in the Vegas casino industry, an assassination attempt facilitated by a betrayal from within, a Congressional inquisition, and a smiling enemy (Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth) attempting to slide a knife in his back. For my money, the Vito chapters are stronger, although I appreciate the Michael scenes more each time I see the film for two reasons: one, I enjoy the difficult plot the more I understand it and recognize the subtlety; and two, Al Pacino’s performance here is likely his all-time career best. (Take, for example, the exchange between him and his wife when Kay tells him she’s taking the children.) As before, the supporting cast excels: Robert Duvall’s work as Tom Hagen reminds me how empty that part of Part III felt, De Niro and Bruno Kirby are spot-on as Vito and Clemenza without feeling slavishly bound to the original actors, and John Cazale absolutely steals the movie as the malleable brother Fredo. In fact, Pacino and Cazale have what I maintain is the best scene of the film, a boathouse confessional which should have netted an Oscar for both; theirs is the relationship which anchors the film, for which I find myself, as I get older, returning to the film more than for the Vito plotline, which is amusing and entertaining, a lighter counterpart to the heavy burden with which Michael finds himself saddled by the film’s end. The first film needed no sequel, but the second proved how much more could be added to the saga; having only seen the third installment once, I’ll be curious to see if it transcends this film’s sense of completion.

Stay tuned for the final Godfather review. But for now, that does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monday at the Movies - April 23, 2012

Welcome to Week Seventeen of “Monday at the Movies.” We take a break from The Godfather franchise, and – in honor of the impending arrival of Arrested Development, Season 4 – we join director Ron Howard for a controversial book adaptation.

The Da Vinci Code (2006) – I was a bit of a Holy Grail nut in high school, mostly because of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade marathons. I was a fan of Dan Brown’s novel, but I took it with a grain of salt because I never believed in the idea of the grail as a Christological bloodline (the cup is a more compelling and textually supported artifact). With Ron Howard directing the film adaptation, I enjoyed it immensely the first time around, appreciating the combination of Indiana Jones meets National Treasure. But on this most recent rewatch I found myself less enamored with the movie. Here we follow Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon in his move to solve the murder of a Louvre curator, which quickly embroils him in a centuries-old struggle between secret societies over the mystery of the Holy Grail; with Ian McKellen at his side and Alfred Molina against him, it’s a first-rate cast. McKellen in particular was a treat for me since I forgot he was in it, but he imbues Sir Leigh Teabing with enough eccentricity to make the character more than just a flat exposition machine. Unfortunately, the movie relies a lot on extreme leaps of logic that seem to work better in prose; I wasn’t convinced that Hanks was piecing together so much of the puzzle in his head, where the Robert Langdon in my head would have been able. My other major critique of this film is that Ron Howard isn’t an action director, as many of the “intense” action sequences fall flat; he is, however, an expert with jump scenes, as I found myself startled at several moments. But as I recall, many of these grievances are rectified by 2009’s Angels and Demons.

With one Robert Langdon feature down, stay tuned for more reviews of this franchise. But for now, that does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday at the Movies - April 16, 2012

Welcome to Week Sixteen of “Monday at the Movies.” Only one film this week, one that makes me think I really ought to put up a “Top 10 Movies” list.

The Godfather (1972) – Forty years and one month ago, a film widely regarded the best of all time opened in American cinemas. Based on the brutally popular Mario Puzo novel, The Godfather has achieved iconic status in global pop culture, rendering any comments I might add as mere kindling to the inferno. Everyone knows the story – Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) runs one of New York’s top mob families, and as the film progresses we witness his son Michael (Al Pacino) move from war hero to father’s son. What struck me about this most recent rewatch was the way that every scene is memorable, with no moments of dry disinterest. We move from the wedding to the backroom deals to assassination plots, through a tour of Italy to rises and falls in the Corleone family, concluding with the often-imitated baptism montage and the film’s final moments, which imbue as much gravitas on a closing door as possible. The dialogue is snappy and eminently quotable, the performances are riveting, Nino Rota’s soundtrack is the ultimate in mafia music, and director Francis Ford Coppola set the standard for what every other mob movie now has to live up to. There's so much more that I could say about the film, so much that deserves mention - James Caan's hotheaded Sonny, Robert Duvall's perfectly collected Tom Hagen, Richard S. Castellano's lovable heavy Clemenza (who wouldn't want this guy at a wedding?), and even Abe Vigoda's work as Tessio, proving that he hasn't aged a day since 1972 because he's been 90 all his life. And in an era where we’re texting and multitasking to our brain’s fullest capacity, I was flabbergasted that the film’s three-hour runtime never bored me or forced me to grab my iPad to check e-mails or Facebook. So strong is the allure of this film after more than forty years that it’s as close to Italian wine as film has captured – improving with age and making us look forward to the next installment. My only regret is that I didn’t have time this week to return for the sequel, but reviewing the next films in the series is an offer I cannot refuse.

Stay tuned for more reviews of The Godfather franchise, but for now that does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Monday at the Movies - April 9, 2012

Welcome to Week Fifteen of “Monday at the Movies.” We’re back to the three-film template with three “genre flicks”: a musical, a meta-mockumentary, and a remake.

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008) – I have a hesitant affection for the Saw franchise (mostly redeemed by Tobin Bell’s star-marking performance), so this Darren Lynn Bousman rock opera is something I’ve orbited but to which I’ve never committed. While I’m no foe of musicals, the cast seemed a mixed bag: Paul Sorvino and Anthony Head on the one hand, Paris Hilton on the other. All told, Repo! is an odd hybrid of Sweeney Todd and the Saw franchise, with a dollop of dystopia thrown in for set dressing. Make no mistake – this is an opera, with generational rises and falls punctuated by bombastic solos and Sondheim-esque talk-singing. Sorvino is Rotti Largo, the dying organ transplant baron in search of a new heir after his brood (including Hilton as the surgery addict Amber Sweet); he finds one in Shilo (Spy Kids alum Alexa Vega), the daughter of his top organ-collecting repo man (Anthony Head). Among the film’s greatest strengths is its highly stylized look, ready-made for the Hot Topic crowd, and its rich plot, whipping between multiple threads which all tie together at the opera-within-an-opera finale. Unfortunately, though, the runtime is a little brief, and each plot thread is introduced with an exposition-heavy montage which might have been better served with a more extended flashback or musical sequence. Additionally, the film will turn off many with its gruesome violence (blood flows, intestines spill, and a face even falls off) and its musical style (more rhythmic slam poetry than melodious harmony), but I found it an enjoyable enough 90-some minutes.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2006) – Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (best known as “those guys in the Michael Caine impressions video”) star in this metafictional adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s famously sprawling proto-postmodern novel, at once a filming of the book and a mockumentary on the making of said filming. After finally reading Tristram Shandy, I went back to the film, and my suspicions were confirmed – the film has many more jokes for those in the know, but it’s at its best when Coogan and Brydon are turned loose upon each other in a battle of one-ups-manship and celebrity impersonations. We begin with a riveting conversation in the makeup chairs, move to a half-hour adaptation of the first few volumes of the novel, and conclude with a failed preview screening of the failed film. There’s about 45 minutes that are almost entirely negligible, dwelling on Coogan’s self-caricature and ruminating a bit too much on the unfilmability of the novel. As a result, it’s easy to get distracted once the film stops showing the straight adaptation segments, especially in the moments when Coogan and Brydon are kept apart. There are a few clever bits, as when Gillian Anderson is cast to play the Widow Wadman, but this is a plot that doesn’t get as much attention as it ought. I’ll say this, though; rewatching Tristram Shandy has reminded me how much I still need to see The Trip, in which Coogan and Brydon team up for a restaurant road trip.

12 Angry Men (1997) – Having glowingly reviewed the Sidney Lumet original last week, I was delighted to see that the remake is available on YouTube. I was even more delighted by the all-star cast – Jack Lemmon, George C. Scott, Ossie Davis, and James Gandolfini, among others. But almost immediately I realized this was a case of a remake which doesn’t do enough to distance itself from the original, nor does it remain slavishly loyal in apparent devotion. Instead, it’s an indistinct reflection of the original, right down to imitative line readings (especially from Tony Danza as Juror #7). While Lemmon does gravitas without even thinking about it, he’s a far cry from Henry Fonda, and even Scott doesn’t improve upon the performance of Lee J. Cobb. Indeed, the only performance which adds something to the film is Mykelti Williamson’s turn as Juror #10; here the white supremacist Ed Begley is replaced by a lapsed member of the Nation of Islam, spouting bigotry against the Hispanic defendant. This clever update, however, is overshadowed by the fact that the film frequently oversimplifies itself, telling instead of showing, as when Juror #3’s bias against the defendant is verbalized instead of implied (as in the original). While it’s in theory a good idea to put contemporary actors into an old classic, when they don’t turn in a new or interesting product, even Juror #12 – straight out of Mad Men – couldn’t sell it to an audience. Stick with the original; this one’s guilty of stagnation.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday at the Movies - April 2, 2012

Welcome to Week Fourteen of “Monday at the Movies.” Only one film this week, but it’s a heck of a film – easily one of the best films of all time.

12 Angry Men (1957) – It’s always difficult to write reviews for excellent films, because what is there to be said beyond how perfect the film is? I’ve been a fan of Sidney Lumet for many years now, and going back to his first theatrical film is one of the greatest pleasures I have when I teach this film every semester. This is a story that’s frequently referenced (and even remade in 1997), its account of one man’s holdout for justice by now legendary. Henry Fonda is Juror #8, a brilliant rhetorician thirsty for the truth; #3, Lee J. Cobb, is the loudest voice in favor of the defendant’s guilt, and a cast of all-stars – each of whom gets their moment to shine – fills the deliberation room. Lumet is as always the master of tension, as best demonstrated by the fact that the camera never leaves the room and we never learn the characters’ names. These performances are among the top in any movie I’ve seen: dynamic, exciting, and memorable. Fonda’s is, of course, rightly the most important role in the film, and he bears the weight with aplomb, light when needed but continually imbued with the gravitas we have come to expect from him. The script, adapted from Reginald Rose’s play, retains the style of the theatrical play, but the work of Lumet and his cast never allow the film to feel stagey. Instead we have the best of what cinema can do – 12 Angry Men is affective, dramatic, engaging, and thought-provoking.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!