The Grifters (1990) Review

8 08 2011

Copyright 1990 Cineplex-Odeon Films

★ ★ ★

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started watching this movie, as I knew very little about it.  However, from what I knew, I thought that it would involve some kind of exciting heist or interesting plot line full of surprises.  In the end, it concluded with neither and was a bit of a non-climatic, unmemorable film.

John Cusack plays small-time con man Roy Dillon who has a visit from his estranged con mother from Baltimore, Lilly (Anjelica Huston).  Complicating matters between himself and his mother is his girlfriend, a sexually-charged ex large-time con accomplice, Myra Langtry (Annette Bening).  The film meanders around with several circumstances confronting each of the main characters: Roy gets hit in the stomach and almost dies which gives him a new lease on life, Lilly is found to be stealing from her mob boss and is sent on the run, and Myra wants to get back into large-time conning with Roy.  These complications all affect Roy in some form and, eventually, unravel his life.  All the characters are seedy in this film and, though it plays alright and keeps some form of interest, there is really no big pay-off in the finale.

I’ve never been a huge fan of any of these actors; honestly, the only one I can somewhat stand is Annette Bening, and that is only in certain roles.  Cusack plays his same laconic self and Huston has just never appealed to me whatsoever for no good reason.  I haven’t seen a lot of Stephen Frears’s movies, and won’t say that this was directed bad, but it just didn’t pay off script-wise for me.  Maybe some people will like the nostalgic feel or think there is something clever in the plot line that eluded me, but on the whole, this film just fell really flat.

Surprisingly, the movie was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Huston, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Bening, Best Director and Best Writing, for material based on another medium for Donald Westlake.  Though it won none of these awards, it must have been a pretty mundane year to even garner this many nominations.  But, then again, the Best Picture winner this year was Dances with Wolves, so that kind of sums it up for 1990.





Music on Film Series Reviews: The Kids are Alright

3 08 2011

Copyright 1978 The Who Films

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Who’s Next consistently ranks as one of my favorite albums of all-time.  Because of this, it was only natural for me to be drawn towards what live Who footage there was out there.  For many years, my uncle or one of my brothers had bestowed a Best Buy gift card to me for Christmas; being a digital nut, it was always a safe bet.  One year, when I was about 16 or 17-years-old, one of those gift cards was cashed in for this two-part DVD.

The footage itself is not so much self-contained as it is an amalgam of footage over the career of The Who.  Footage quality varies widely from early black-and-white to slick live color 16mm footage from the late 1970s.  Intermixed with the live footage are interviews with the members of the band: Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon.  The film encompasses the band’s life from 1964-1978 and includes some of drummer Keith Moon’s final performances.  He would die of accidental barbiturate overdose at the age of 32 in September, 1978.

The raw energy of a band like The Who is hard to capture in concert footage, but I feel this film gives a valiant effort.  Especially worth noting are the later performances of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “Who Are You” and “Baba O’Rilly” in 1978.  Iconic footage from these performances have made been integrated into many other media avenues since release including the 2001 Cameron Crowe film Vanilla Sky.

If you are a fan of The Who, then I highly recommend this film.  Not only does it capture the band’s life from early success until Moon’s final, tragic days, it also takes a look in a very unobtrusive way into their lives recording together and interacting on promotional tours, etc.  It definitely is a gem of compiled footage from a band that will go into the annals of music history as trendsetters and masters of raw emotion, both live and on the album.

Here’s one of my favorite tracks from the film:





Scarecrow (1973) Review

30 07 2011

Copyright 1973 Warner Brothers Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Since Doctor Who has been on hiatus for the summer after their mid season break, we’ve been watching the spin-off series Torchwood to bridge the gap.  With the new job, it’s a bit difficult to watch features in addition to a series, so I’m going to pull a little known film that I am very fond of from the back log to review: Scarecrow.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this film, so I’m not sure how hard the film is to find these days.  However, about 10 years ago when I first viewed this movie, it was almost impossible to locate.  In one of my cinema history books I saw a picture from the film with a young Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.  Being a huge fan of both of these incredible actors, I was immediately interested in finding a copy of this film.  This was before Netflix, so I had to make the rounds to all the local video stores; none of the stores had the film.  Months went on with no success until I came to a Movie Gallery a few towns away.  This was around the time that VHS was being fully phased out to DVDs, so they were having a huge sale on VHS movies.  The store literally had hundreds of movies for sale for about $3 a piece.  I bought properly 500 movies that summer that were hard to find, rare or foreign, of course all VHS, but still it was some way to view these films at the time.  Deep within the droves of cassette stacks, I found a lone copy of Scarecrow.  I still have it in my collection today and feel it is one of the most underrated films of the 1970s.

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, Hackman plays an ex-convict named Max Milian and Al Pacino plays Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi, an ex-sailor.  They meet on a path in California near the beginning of the film and form a partnership as friends, with plans to go into business together when they get to Pittsburgh.  Hackman’s character has a plan to open a car wash which he is sure will be a success.  Francis agrees to be his partner in business, but first wants to stop by Detroit and make well with his wife, Annie, and the child he left behind and never saw.  Essentially, the film is a road movie between these two opposite personalities and their weird friendship that develops in their travels from California to Pittsburgh.  Max is quick tempered and aggressive in many situations; whereas, Francis is calm, conservative and child-like.  Along the way, they visit several different places, get put in a work camp for awhile and go through both personal injury and triumph.

What really works with this film is the true-to-life dichotomy between the characters of Max and Francis’s relationship.  They are complete opposites, but in some strange way need each other to survive.  They learn from the other and find the only support they have ever known in life in their friendship.  The story is shot in a gritty, realist nature which only adds to the believability of the characters and their complex relationship.  Needless to say, Pacino and Hackman are absolutely brilliant in this film.  It was at the height of both of their professional abilities and the casting choices for their respective roles couldn’t have been better.

The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and has been generally well-regarded by critics since it came out.  In looking on Netflix, it seems this film is still hard to locate all these years later.  However, if you can find a copy, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this 1970s gem.





Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011) Review

15 07 2011

Copyright 2011 Warner Brothers Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

So, it’s 2:20 a.m. on early Friday morning here on the east coast.  I just got back from the midnight screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.  This is the second part of the two-movie conclusion to one of the most popular movie series of the decade, which, in turn, is based on one of the most popular book series of all-time.

Picking up from where Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I left off, this film begins at the burial of the free elf Dobby.  Without going into too much detail on the synopsis, as I’m sure 90% of you have already read the books and just care if the movie is a good representation or not, the first 20 or so minutes is very much exposition.  It recaps a bit from what the previous installment showed and then continues to set-up the next major plot point, the search for another of Voldemort’s horcruxes at Gringott’s Bank.  The Gringott’s chase and escape sequence is relatively short compared to what I remember it being in the book.  Following this, Harry and friends apparate to Hogsmeade, meet Ableforth Dumbledore, Albus’s brother, and enter into the now Snape-headed Hogwarts.  I would say at this point you’re maybe 45 minutes into this two hour and ten minute movie, if that.  From this point on is the  final battle and showdown at Hogwarts.

The exposition is a bit rushed, but I was completely fine with it.  I mean, if you are going to split a massive book into two movies, give me the good stuff!  The final battle at Hogwarts and lead up to the showdown between Harry and Voldemort are epic and spectacular; there are many moments where you will find yourself on the edge of your seat.  Many popular characters that haven’t appeared in several of the latest movies reappear in this installment, and it’s exhilarating to watch such an grandly staged battle between good and evil for more than the last half of the film.

J.K. Rowling wrote the books intending for each book to become darker and for a more mature audience.  I will say that this entry in the movie series is by far the most graphic.  There were several scenes that were disturbing, even for an adult; so, for all you parents, be aware that this is definitely not wholly a “kid’s movie.”

The Harry Potter series has already become classic literature to some degree, and in only 14 short years.  It’s majestical storytelling, and in the films, well-acted, well-scripted and wonderfully shot, directed and produced.  To me, this installment in the film series was a fitting end to an iconic story.  I don’t think anyone will walk away from the theater disappointed.





Chaplin in Review – PART XI – A Countess from Hong Kong

12 07 2011

Copyright 1967 Chaplin Film Productions and Universal Pictures

★ ★ ★

And so we come to Chaplin’s final completed feature film and our final part of this series, A Countess in Hong Kong.  Released in 1967, Chaplin was nearly 80 years old while directing this picture.  It was his first and only time that he shot a widescreen presentation and his only feature film outside of 1923’s A Woman in Paris that he was not prominently featured as an actor.  In fact, he played the exact same type of small role as he had in A Woman in Paris in this film, that of a steward.

The film stars internationally known Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.  Brando plays Saudi Arabian-designate Ogden Mears, who is on his way home from a world tour aboard a luxury liner.  A married man, yet one who is more or less estranged from his spouse, Mears is sailing back alone with his older valet Hudson (Patrick Cargill) and lawyer friend Harvey (Chaplin’s son with Lita Grey, Sydney Chaplin).  Loren plays a Russian Countess named Natascha, who sneaks aboard the luxury liner to escape being forced into prostitution.  Because she has no passport, she is forced to stay in the same cabin as Mears and hideout from the authorities on board.  A flurry of comedic situations between uptight Mears and exotic, outgoing Natascha ensue and an overarching plot of finding a way to get Natascha safely off the ship is followed throughout.

Essentially, the film plays out like a 1930s romantic comedy programmer, which didn’t fit very well into the 1960s.  In fact, Chaplin originally had the idea for this film in the 1930s after he sailed on his three month tour around the world.  Had the film been completed at this time, Paulette Goddard would have starred in the role of Natascha, and I’m sure Chaplin would have reserved the role of Mears for himself.

Though the potential of the film seems like it would be huge, I mean Chaplin, Brando and Loren on a matinee is enough to make anyone foam at the mouth, in the end, the film just falls flat.  Brando and Chaplin apparently despised each other on set.  Chaplin was notorious for directing actors exactly the way he wanted them to play a part, many times going to the length of acting the bit out himself and then saying, “Now, do it more like that.”  Brando, who was known for his intense dedication to performance through method acting, had a hard time being handled as an actor in this manner and didn’t see eye-to-eye with Chaplin methods at all.  The final result on screen is visibly a stilted performance; rather than coming off as funny and light hearted, Brando feels wooden and forcibly tongue-in-cheek.  Likewise, Loren’s performance leaves something to be desired, but not to the same degree as Brando’s portrayal of Mears.  Honestly, to me, the show stealer was Patrick Cargill as Mear’s aging valet Hudson.  I thought he was brilliant as a supporting character.

Like A King in New York, this film was also made in England with rented studios and didn’t afford Chaplin an ideal working environment that he had been accustomed to in California with his own studio.  Rather tragically during production actually, Chaplin broke his ankle which delayed production for a couple weeks.

Upon release, A Countess from Hong Kong received generally lackluster reviews and was not a success at the box office.  During one of the premieres, the projectionist didn’t set the anamorphic adapter on the projector properly and the film was screened in an improper aspect ratio.  The disaster of this film was very difficult for Chaplin, though there were some reviewers who gave high praise to the picture.  In my opinion, I feel it was a rather low note to go out on and can see why many people prefer to think of Limelight as Chaplin’s swan song, but once an artist, always an artist and to take away an artist’s ability to create is essentially that of killing him.

Following this film, Chaplin wrote a screenplay for a film that would have been called The Freak.  The screenplay, which was about a South American girl who sprouts wings and is passed off by captors as an angel before being arrested because of her appearance, would have starred his daughter Victoria from his marriage with Oona. In fact, test footage was made with Victoria in costume, though Chaplin never got to complete the film.

In the 1970s, Chaplin spent a good deal of time scoring his early silent films and re-releasing them with the completed scores.  In 1972, he returned to the United States to accept an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to Motion Pictures; this was his first time back on US soil in 20 years.  While in United States, he met with some old friends and even drove by his former studio and other places of interest.  Here is the video of his acceptance speech for his Honorary Oscar.  The standing ovation has been edited down as it was originally 5 minutes long, the longest any performer has ever received to this date:

Chaplin would go on to be knighted in 1975.  He passed away on Christmas Day 1977 at his home in Vevey, Switzerland at the age of 88.

Well, that brings us to the end of our journey through the eleven feature films that Charlie Chaplin made in his lifetime.  I hope you have enjoyed my reviews and some of the background information I have provided on each of the films.  I have to say that Chaplin is probably my favorite filmmaker of all-time.  Though his films were not always the most technically proficient, his ability to tell a story that could make you laugh or cry, or a little of both, was a true gift.  I am by no means the foremost scholar on the work of Chaplin, but I do feel like I am better than the average as I have read most of his biographies including the seminal work by David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (highly reccomended!) and Chaplin’s own autobiography, My Autobiography.  In addition, I did extensive research into his affair with Joan Barry for an article that was published on alternativereel.com and also available as a header link here in this blog as Joan Barry Article.  Anyway, thanks for reading this series and if you have any questions on Chaplin’s life or films, I will do my best to answer in the comments section.





Chaplin in Review – PART X – A King in New York

11 07 2011

Copyright 1957 Charlie Chaplin Productions and Attica Film Company

★ ★ ★ 1/2

For good reason, Chaplin’s bitterness towards the United States was very high during the late 1950s.  His persecution under the Red scare and constant tailings and pressure from the FBI resulted in Chaplin being exiled in 1952.  Along with the forced sale of his personal assets, Chaplin also lost his beloved studio, Chaplin Studios, which was located at the corner of La Brea and and Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.  For over 30 years, Chaplin had the convenience of working at his own studio, with crew members who were familiar with his work and style and, most importantly, on his own time.  In Europe, once Chaplin decided to move forward with another film, which, at first was a slight consideration of returning to Shadow and Substance, but later settling on A King in New York, Chaplin had to rent a studio in which to shoot which greatly hindered his normal process.

A King in New York was Chaplin’s return parry at the United States government.  The story centers around Chaplin’s character of King Igor Shahdov, a recently exiled king from a small, unnamed European country.  For reasons unknown, his prime minister has drained the country treasury and disappeared, leaving the king stranded and broke in New York City.  Trying to the make the best of his situation, Shahdov tries to present an appeal towards the peaceful use of nuclear power, in addition to settling into life in America in the 1950s.  Chaplin satirically takes jabs at much of American popular culture of this era including wide screen movies, rock and roll music and cosmetic surgery, among other things.  One night at a dinner party, which is unknowingly being broadcasted live on television, Shahdov alludes to the fact that he has had some theatre experience.  Because of this, he is eventually conned by young, pretty T.V. Specialist Ann Kay (Dawn Addams) into doing a deodorant commercial, which is filmed secretly and without his consent.  The commercial becomes a success and the king is offered many other opportunities for doing commercials and plugging various products.  At first he rejects all the offers, but, eventually, because of the need for money, ultimately accepts.  Soon after his newfound commercial successes, Chaplin runs into a small boy named Rupert (played by Chaplin’s older son with Oona, then 10-year-old Michael Chaplin), whose parents are about to be jailed for communist sympathies by the House of Un-American Activities.  Shahdov gives Rupert refuge in his hotel room, causing himself to become a suspect in communist sympathy.  In the end, Shahdov is disillusioned with the United States and leaves the country.

It would be 16 years before A King in New York was released to American audiences because of the obvious attacks on the country at the time; in Europe, the film received decent, but not glowing reviews.  Because of Chaplin having to rent studios and work with a crew he was not accustomed (and, for that matter, one that was not accustomed to him), Chaplin rushed the production and filmed this movie in record breaking time for a Chaplin film (12 weeks).  Also problematic to the production value was having to shoot London locations and in-studio sets to double for New York City.

Though Chaplin said he never set out to make a political film with this motion picture, it definitely has an underlying political tone that stands out to the viewer.  Furthermore, because of this, the somewhat lackluster production value and a script many say is not as generally tight as most Chaplin scripts, this film has been lamented by some audiences as not being very good.  For me, personally, I enjoyed the movie.  It is definitely not his best work, far from it in fact; however, it has it’s own place in his body of work and I can clearly see his reasons for making a film of this manner.

My only qualms about the film were the verbose political rants given by young Rupert.  To me, these became a little tiring and heavy handed, and I felt Michael’s performance was a bit stilted.  Apparently, Oona and Charlie constantly went back and forth as to who was the better child actor Chaplin had worked with, young Jackie Coogan in The Kid or young Michael in this film.  In my opinion, Coogan is the hands down winner of this verbal bet, but maybe Michael’s performance garners more praise than I feel due.  All film criticism, after all, is subjective.





Chaplin in Review – PART IX – Limelight

8 07 2011

Copyright 1952 Chaplin Studios

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The Cold War propaganda that was being pressed heavily in the late 1940s targeted Chaplin because of his liberal and humanist sensibilities.  In the midst of this troubling time, Chaplin made Limelight, a film about a vaudevillian clown who has, essentially, lost his audience.

Chaplin plays Calvero, a once great vaudeville clown, who has succumbed to alcoholism and an audience who no longer has interest in his performance.  On coming home one night, he smells gas and breaks into a nearby apartment to find a young woman, Thereza, or “Terry” (Claire Bloom), in the midst of a suicide attempt.  Calvero quickly calls a doctor and saves her life.  The doctor tells Calvero that she is a ballerina who suffers from hysterical paralysis, which is paralysis present though no physical ailment is present.  Calvero takes Terry to his apartment to nurse her and the two become quite good friends, offering tales of their lives and philosophies.  The two genuinely begin to help each other as Calvero dreams of returning to the stage and his former glory with Terry as his companion.  Also around this time, Terry begins to overcome her paralysis.  As time passes and Terry’s paralysis is fully recovered, she moves up in the ballet world and reunites with a former love (played by Chaplin’s younger son from his marriage to Lita Grey, Sydney).  The connection between the two for the remainder of the film is that of confidants; Terry helps Calvero try to find his former glory, and Calvero helps reinstate Terry’s confidence so her hysterical paralysis won’t attack again.  In the final part of the film, Terry arranges a final performance for Calvero where he once agains shines.  Assisting him on stage is a former vaudevillian played by Buster Keaton.  This is the only appearance of the two masters of comedy on screen together and is magical to watch.  Following his final performance and standing ovation, the clown suffers a heart attack and dies while watching Terry dance her final act of the ballet in the limelight.

This was definitely a personal film for Chaplin, as he and both of his parents were vaudevillians in England.  Calvero is a mixture of several personalities that Chaplin knew growing up whose audience had abandoned them.  Supposedly, before writing the screenplay for this film, Chaplin completed an unreleased novel entitled Footlights that helped him arrange the story and provided background on the characters of Calvero and Terry that weren’t shown in the film.

Limelight was released in 1952, the year that Chaplin left the United States in exile.  He had long been a target of the House of Un-American Activities and J. Edgar Hoover kept a close watch on Chaplin beginning in the 1920s.  While leaving on a short voyage home to London for the premiere of this film, Hoover negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a revocation of Chaplin’s re-entry permit (as he was still a UK citizen, though he had lived in the US at this point for 40 years).  Hearing the news, Chaplin was deeply saddened and decided not to return to the United States.  He eventually settled in Vevey, Switzerland, where he remained for the rest of his life.  His wife, Oona, returned to the US to take care of negotiating sales of his mansion in Beverly Hills, the Studio and take care of other assets.

Limelight has always been generally well-received and is a deeply moving film.  In my opinion, this Chaplin’s best performance in regards to his talkie motion pictures.  His sentimentality as the dried up clown and the pain in his eyes make many scenes extremely touching.  There is nothing worse than watching the pain of a clown.  Due to the lackluster reviews of Chaplin’s final two films, many consider Limelight to be Chapin’s true swan song.  It is definitely better than his last two efforts, but I still like A King in New York a lot, which will be the next topic for this series.

As an interesting side note, due to the anit-American hype surrounding Chaplin at this time, Limelight was not shown in many theaters throughout the country.  A wide release was not in effect until 1972, at which time the score for this film won an Academy Award for Chaplin and his fellow composers because the film wasn’t in contention until the wide release.  Because of this win, the Academy later put a statute of limitations on nominations.








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