Then Playing — Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser; Somewhere; Ladies in Retirement

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (Charlotte Zwerin, 1988). This documentary was released during that strange stretch when Clint Eastwood admirably leveraged his considerable influence with Warner Bros. to get the studio to make movies about jazz. Eastwood serves as producer … Continue reading Then Playing — Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser; Somewhere; Ladies in Retirement

Banks, Bergman, Hamilton, Limon, Polanski

1971 (Johanna Hamilton, 2014). Clearly positioned as a history lesson for those who venerate Edward Snowden for his digital freedom fighting in bringing to light information about the U.S. government’s shady spying on its own citizens, 1971 focuses in on a break-in at a Pennsylvania FBI office in the year of the title. Those who are shocked by the modern transgressions against privacy can watch this documentary for a bracing reminder that federal crime-fighting agencies are in full-scale same-as-it-ever-was territory, Patriot Act or not. Of course, that doesn’t make current abuses acceptable, but the indignation is best shaped as part of … Continue reading Banks, Bergman, Hamilton, Limon, Polanski

Garnett, Gondry, Hitchcock, Sturges, Susser

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946). This adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel is a film noir classic. It’s an exemplar of the form, and perhaps the perfect introduction to the dark charms of the sub-genre built around the basest of human instincts and the shadows in which the manifestation of those urges are obscured, if only because it spells out its duplicitous so plainly. It’s also, sad to say, only a middling film, unfurling its plot with a rushed anxiousness that sometimes leaves behind necessary depth and character development. Tay Garnett’s directing is moody, but also … Continue reading Garnett, Gondry, Hitchcock, Sturges, Susser

Aja, Cameron, Hanks, Ophüls, Saladoff

Piranha (Alexandre Aja, 2010). It’s remarkable that a film that so overtly embraces its own willful trashiness can still be dour, flatfooted and boring as hell. Richard Dreyfuss’s early cameo as a scruffy boater who’s a victim of carnivorous fish is only the first overt reference to Steven Spielberg’s superlative Jaws. The entire plot about the vicious water-dwellers is essentially lifted from the earlier feature, with the family vacation crowds in a terrorized tourist tour replaced by ribald Spring Breakers, all the better to fill the screen with R-rated nudity. It’s gory, ridiculous and almost deliberately inept. It’s also no … Continue reading Aja, Cameron, Hanks, Ophüls, Saladoff

Kosinski, McQueen, Melville, Reichardt, Young

Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010). “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man!” Is there another actor working today besides Jeff Bridges who could deliver a line like that and make it sound plausible? In the never-ending quest to mine every cinematic artifact from the past three to four decades and turn it into a sparkling new franchise, Disney delivers the sequel, almost three decades in the making, that almost no one waited anxiously to see. What’s more, someone apparently decided that the best way to honor the zippy innocence of the original digital groundbreaker was to heap a whole bunch … Continue reading Kosinski, McQueen, Melville, Reichardt, Young

Campbell, Cukor, Curtiz, Gluck, von Donnersmarck

Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949). Probably the apex of the onscreen collaborations between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, largely because the storyline involving married attorneys facing off against one another in a high-profile trial allowed for the sort of warm, frightfully intelligent banter that served the duo best. For most of the film, the interplay is infectiously delightful, especially as presented by the sure lens of George Cukor, who demonstrates an unerring sense of timing, including knowing when to just lean back and let his stars cut back and forth across the frame. The screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson … Continue reading Campbell, Cukor, Curtiz, Gluck, von Donnersmarck

Eastwood, Polanski, Rosenberg, Siodmak, Wyatt

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010). Clint Eastwood will often dismiss anyone trying to read too much subtext of grand personal artistic statement in his films. They’re just pictures to the steely-eyed director. Certainly this ponderous rumination of mortality holds no added passion or weight that might be expected from a guy entering into his eighties and, therefore, maybe a little interested in considering what might be out there beyond this mortal coil. Instead Eastwood plods through a notably facile script from Peter Morgan bringing together multiple story threads in ways that would strain credulity to breaking if they weren’t so completely … Continue reading Eastwood, Polanski, Rosenberg, Siodmak, Wyatt

Clooney, Goldwyn, Kiarostami, Taylor, Vaughn

The Help (Tate Taylor, 2011). I think a strong, important movie can (and arguably should) be made about the continued racial-based social inequities imposed in the American South–really all over the country, but those below the Mason-Dixon line had a special skill for it–in the early nineteen-sixties as the power of the Civil Rights movement was beginning the much needed push back against the monied classes that wanted to maintain some diluted but still despicable variation on the slavery system abolished about a century earlier. The Help, for all its noble intentions, simply isn’t that movie. Even putting aside the … Continue reading Clooney, Goldwyn, Kiarostami, Taylor, Vaughn