Thursday, August 19, 2010

This Week In Tickets: 9 August 2010 to 15 August 2010

Strangely, no horror movies opened this Friday the 13th. Which is fine with me, because my folks and I will henceforth have a difficult time associating that date with misfortune, what with it bringing my brother Dan and his wife a new daughter. As near as I can figure it, her 11th birthday will be the first to fall on that supposedly-unlucky day.

Which means nothing. Unless you think that leap years lining up in that meaningless way counters the bad luck associated with a meaningless date on a calendar. In which case, congratulations, you've set a new record for superstition!

This Week In Tickets!

Wow... Before I scanned the page, I'd almost forgotten about the Thursday night double-feature, even though I wound up writing a full review of Agora (and grumbling that it is apparently not scheduled for a Blu-ray release). I have consumed a fair amount of movie since then, and a fair amount of TV as well, but, yikes, that stuff shouldn't have slipped my mind.

Admittedly, the reason I saw Get Low that night was because I wanted to catch Agora before it left town, and it was down to half a screen, with the only evening show at 9:25. Since I more or less knew that I wasn't going to start walking to Kendall Square at quarter to nine, a double feature was in order, and that happened to be the movie that fit best. Fortunately, it was a much better movie than most chosen based on start time seem to be.

And somewhere between Regal Fenway and the Brattle, I lost my Scott Pilgrim stub. --sigh-- The substitute comes from the back of one of htose reward program blanks they spit out at you. Note that because Scott Pilgrim played Fantasia, I tossed it into a Fantasia catch-up page. As close as I can tell, the next things likely to reach Boston from there are The Last Exorcism and the first Mesrine on 27 August, but I'll probably update a little by then.

Street of Chance (1930)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir Centennials)

This flick from 1930 wasn't the film originally set to play the Brattle that night - the 1942 film of the same name with Claire Trevor based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich was - but few were complaining. After all, while this one isn't a great movie, it does star William Powell, and it's a real struggle for me to remember a bad movie he's starred in.

In this one, he plays John D. Marsden, a supposed stockbroker who does most of his business at night, gambling under the name "Natural" Davis. He's probably good enough at figuring odds and counting cards that he'd be on a Vegas blacklist today, and he's generally well-regarded, giving people the chance to win their losses back, unwilling to take the money of those who can't afford to lose it, and making sure that his less-successful brother (Regis Toomey) doesn't try to subsist on cards the way he does. But, he's been so successful at concealing his double life that when said brother and his new bride (Jean Arthur) come back to Manhattan so that he can play "Natural", it's going to be a difficult trick to avoid exposing his hypocrisy and send "Babe" and Judith back to San Francisco without the taste for it.

Like a lot of films of the studio era, Street of Chance is slight but enjoyable. The plot's a bit contrived, but it's not extended or complicated past its breaking point. Director John Cromwell sees mostly stays out of the way, and William Powell is charming enough to make the audience care about a character who can be decidedly amoral at times. A one-two punch of Jean Arthur and Kay Francis doesn't hurt the movie at all, either.

The Chase (1946)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Noir Centennials)

Idle question: If you nod off during a movie, but it turns out that all you missed was an extended dream sequence, you can still say that you've effectively seen it, right? That's what happened for me in this case; I suddenly found myself confused by what was going on only to have main character Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) suddenly jerk to consciousness himself (see how in sync I was with the main character?), and, ironically, dash out of the room, totally confused.

There's a bit of a delay between then and when the real chase begins - the one in Cuba was apparently just a decoy - and it can sort of try one's patience a bit. It's not like there hadn't been any warning that Scott could wind up having mental problems (he'd been taking pills earlier in the film), but it feels like an arbitrary delaying tactic between spurts of Scott having to outrun and outwit his boss.

The bad guys are where The Chase has a lot of its fun - Steve Cochran is a pleasure as gangster Eddie Roman, a sadistic maniac with a volatile temper, and he's ably assisted by Peter Lorre. Lorre had a couple of stock personae that he liked to pull out, and here he's going for "vicious, sarcastic little bastard". Nailing it, of course, adding just a little more menace to scenes where it maybe wasn't quite clear that Roman is about to do something terrible.

Get Low

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Get Low is this year's Crazy Heart, a decent movie that nevertheless serves as a perfect showcase for a respected actor. This leads me to a couple of thoughts: First, that the actor getting showcased, Robert Duvall, actually interested me a little more in Crazy Heart, where he just created a memorable character and performance without the big dramatic moment. And second, is there a chain going on here? Does this mean that sometime next fall, we'll see a movie that thrives on a great central performance by Bill Murray, netting him some long-deserved awards?

I kid, a little. In fact, I think Get Low is a pretty good movie. The atmospheric opening gives a spark of menace and mystery to what could be a slight comedy or sentimental drama. It's a little awkward at times - director Aaron Schneider and the three credited writers have a hard time unraveling the mystery smoothly, instead revealing it in chunks that don't always feel completely natural - but an interesting story, with an attention to detail and tone that makes for a nice balance between it being operatic and cozy.

And, yes, the acting is pretty impressive. Robert Duvall's excellence is an expected thing by now, and if he doesn't vanish into the role of Felix Bush without a trace, he certainly seems to know where he can make familiarity work for him. He knows how to have a man not given to oration make a speech, and doesn't play up the "scary old man" bit unnecessarily. The ensemble around him is great, too; Bill Murray is unmatched at making a somber man funny and a funny character someone you can take seriously. Sissy Spacek is note-perfect as Felix's one-time love, and Bill Cobb is memorable in a role perfectly suited to him. Even smaller parts have good performances by the likes of Gerald McRaney and Lucas Black.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2010 at Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

I adore Agora, and I'll readily admit that a large part of it is that I agree with the politics and philosophy of the thing. Rather than it being a movie about a scientist who encounters something her rational outlook can't explain and thus must learn to have faith, it's a movie about how certainty allows people to do terrible things, and curiosity is a much more exhilarating emotion than comfort, and the stunning visuals and fine performances don't do much to hide that.

It's 391 AD, and the Roman city of Alexandria, home to the greatest library of the time, is in turmoil. Christians are now allowed to practice their religion freely, which has served to bring tensions between them and those worshiping the traditional pagan gods out in the open. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), an astronomer and mathematician who is one of the few female teachers in this temple of learning, is not religious herself but welcomes all seekers of knowledge within her classroom. One of her students, Orestes (Oscar Isaac), would court her, even as he clashes with his Christian classmate Synesius (Rupert Evans). Soon, the war of words between Christians and pagans will boil over into a riot, with the aftermath leaving Alexandria a dramatically changed city and Hypatia in even greater peril.

The story is not entirely or even primarily told from Hypatia's point of view, though. The central figure is Davus (Max Minghella), one of her slaves. He follows her lectures better than any of her students and is thoroughly smitten with her, but is also being drawn to Christianity by charismatic street preachers and the promise of a more just world. His interactions with Hypatia are intriguing, an exaggerated version of class relations in any era - depending on the moment, she will treat her slaves as confidantes or little more than furniture; it's no wonder Davus is pushed toward something that offers him certainty. And his arc with the Christians is certainly a pessimist's view of religion - a man reaching for a place to belong, even as its unquestionable authority allow terrible things to be done in the name of God. Minghella is convincing as Davus goes through each step, convincing us of his growth from naive servant to warrior and beyond.

Full review on EFC.

The Man from Laramie

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Mann & Stewart)

The Man from Laramie is a sneaky-good Western, in that it starts out looking like a somewhat underwhelming example of the genre, with its crooned title song and Stewart's resolutely determined Will Lockhart determined to get to the bottom of what's going on around here before he gets into town and meets Cathy O'Donnell's too-sweet-for-words shopkeeper. Not that familiarity is necessarily a bad thing; who doesn't like seeing (and hearing!) Wallace Ford as Stewart's sidekick?

But as the movie goes on, interesting and unexpected things tend to happening. Lockhart has injected himself into a tricky family situation, in that the Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) owns the town but his son may not be up to the task of being his heir and his ranch-hand may not look kindly on the elder Waggoman backing out of plans to make him a partner. Then there's the tough old lady who owns the one ranch Waggoman hasn't bought out, a murdered town gossip, and, oh, the real reason Lockhart has come, somebody supplying repeating rifles to the Apache. That's a lot of balls in the air, and they often land at unexpected times. The ultimate villain of the piece is not immediately obvious.

It makes for an engrossing story, and Mann tells it efficiently, with stark photography that complements the general lack of excessive sentimentality . It's not a grim western, but it is one that does well in avoiding a simple black hats and white hats shoot it out template.

The Far Country

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (Mann & Stewart)

The second half of the double feature (or first, depending on when you got to the theater) didn't quite do as much for me. It's parts don't fit together quite so well; each section seems less-than-solidly connected to the others, and even within a section, the characters have wildly different tones. The relentlessly cheery young woman played by Corinne Calvet barely seems to exist in the same universe as the hardened James Stewart character, and John McIntire occasionally seems unsure whether to play his villain as broad and theatrical or gritty.

It's still pretty good; the Brattle's program described the Mann/Stewart westerns as often being noirs in Western clothing, and that certainly applies here: Stewart is the classic noir anti-hero who just wants to look out for himself despite being tempted by the femme fatale and chance at easy money on the one hand and the innocent girl and her principles on the other. What Mann does especially well is to marry this sort of story to the traditional western themes of law-abiding people in a lawless land - despite some unevenness, it's a mature western (though, in 1896, the frontier has moved to the Klondike) that works.

The Expendables

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2010 at AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run)

Give writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone credit - he knows that the audience for a movie like The Expendables isn't there for small ordnance or small explosions. So every action beat in the movie is larger than life, from the Somali pirate who has half his torso blasted off the open the festivities to the truly excessive amount of C4 used in the finale. This is a movie made by a man who has absolutely zero interest in making something that can be cut down to a PG-13 rating.

To be fair, Stallone gets more than just overkill. He clearly understands his own appeal, and the whole film is about guys being masculine, a comfortable balance between casual bullshitting with each other and focused intensity. Between action scenes, he spends a lot of time showing himself, Jason Statham, Jet Li, and company hanging out. That's never more obvious than in the early scene where Stallone plays off Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzeneggar. It's a comfortable, amusing moment, the sort of thing that strikes an audience as fun rather than potentially disappointing.

What is a little disappointing is the way Stallone directs some of the action bits. There are some excellent ones, not just for the amount of firepower used but for the creatively insane ways it is used. But inside the castle where much of the last act takes place, the action often gets choppy and confused. It's almost impossible to tell who is fighting whom, to the point where even when the camera does hold still without cutting for a few seconds, the heads are cropped off! One would think, as old-school as the movie is, Stallone would go for a little more clarity there.

(Also, given the name, I kind of expected a few more members of his team to be expended, so to speak, although that's not a huge complaint!)

Street of Chance / The ChaseGet LowAgoraScott Pilgrim vs The WorldThe Man from Laramie / The Far CountryThe ExpendablesThe Girl Who Played with Fire

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw Agora when it first came out in NYC and loved Weisz' performance as Hypatia. Amenabar distorted some history in pursuit of his art. The Great Library of Alexandria didn't end as he depicted and Synesius wasn't such a jerk. However, that's what artists do. I don't go to movies for accurate history. For people who want to know more about the historical Hypatia, I highly recommend a very readable biography by Maria Dzielska called Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion.