True Grit

(Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)

with Darcy and Graham Stone, Redstone Cinemas, 12/27/10


If there’s such a thing as pure filmmaking, the Coens have got it down.  Their films have an almost uncanny precision, as if machine-calibrated under laboratory conditions.  True Grit is probably the warmest movie they’ve made to date — which is kind of funny, since the most overt expression of love it contains is sucking venom out of a snakebite.  For the movie’s first half or so, its deliberate pace seems like a function of unhurried mastery, but eventually it starts to feel plodding; similarly, the clever/folksy dialogue ends up being tiring, even though it’s a delight early on.  Jeff Bridges and Hailie Steinfeld give magnificent performances – she as brisk and keen as he is sloppy and soured.  (Matt Damon is a lot of fun too.)  True Grit has all the right ingredients, and if it sort of peters out towards the end, it’s still an impressive film well worth the time.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 3:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

The King’s Speech

(Tom Hooper, 2010)

with Dad, Mom, Devin, Darcy, Christine Gray, and Graham Stone, Redstone Cinemas, 12/27/10


I’ve never seen a movie with such unnecessarily distracting cinematography.  Here we have a sweet, simple story about a man overcoming his private doubts to fulfill his public duty — and for some reason the whole thing is flooded with blue light, distorted by wide-angle lenses, hobbled by weird framing choices, and often more interested in showing us a wide swath of wallpaper than the central characters’ faces.  All of this is an immense disservice to the actors, who are turning in strong and subtle performances, and to the audience, who understandably are more interested in the characters’ difficult decisions than the DP’s apparently arbitrary ones.  The King’s Speech is still an effective movie, especially in the way it evokes the anguish, and the necessity, of England’s entering a second world war.  But it could easily have been better, if Mr. Danny Cohen had gotten out of its way.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm  Leave a Comment  


(Steven Spielberg, 1975)

alone, streaming on Netflix in Cache #6, 12/26/10


In effect, Jaws is two movies.  The first half is about a shark that terrorizes a small seaside town, forcing its inhabitants to choose between tourist dollars and safety concerns – and the second half is about three men who go out to sea to kill a shark, and bicker and bond along the way.  They’re both excellent movies, and there’s enough of a connection between them that the transition doesn’t seem too violent.  Spielberg’s storytelling is fluid and assured; the long shots don’t feel long, the cool shots don’t feel indulgent, and the camera serves the story rather than vice versa.  The performances are relaxed and appealing; even Robert Shaw’s scenery-chewing doesn’t seem too forced.  Jaws is often said to have inaugurated the era of the modern blockbuster, but it has more in common with a smooth Old Hollywood classic like Casablanca than the big, fussy action spectacles of today.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Christmas Carol

(Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951)

with the whole family, Graham Stone, and Christine Gray, on DVD in Cache #6, 12/26/10


Though primarily a showcase for Alistair Sim’s extraordinary performance as Scrooge, this Christmas Carol also features lushly expressionistic cinematography and a strong supporting cast.  Sim’s manic glee on discovering that he is alive and hasn’t missed Christmas is worth the price of admission. It’s hard to imagine a more life-affirming scene.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 10:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Miracle on 34th Street

(George Seaton, 1947)

with the whole family, Christine Gray, and Graham Stone, on DVD in Cache 6, 12/23/10


To call Miracle on 34th Street a great Christmas movie would be underrating it; it’s a great movie, period.  Some might dismiss the movie as sentimental, but in fact it’s a passionate, carefully constructed defense of sentimentality, set not in a world of unmitigated sweetness and nobility, but in a world of heartbreak, compromise, greed, and bungled good intentions. There’s not one character in Miracle on 34th Street who doesn’t display some blend of admirable and disreputable traits; Doris is kind-hearted but ruthlessly pragmatic, Fred is patient and brave but far from blind to his own career advancement, and even Kris Kringle has his petulant moments — indeed, the movie would have no third act if he didn’t.  The movie isn’t about perfect people living beautiful lives in a fluffy, postcard landscape; it’s about flawed people trying desperately to find something they can believe in.  Edmund Gwenn’s performance is a landmark in cinema historyperhaps the only fully convincing portrayal of Santa Claus ever committed to film.  (The fact that his character isn’t necessarily Santa Claus only adds to the effect.)  The note-perfect casting in even the most minor role gives the film a rich and broad canvas; it’s as much about New York as it is about Christmas.  And as for the central dramatic question of the movie – Is Kris Kringle Santa Claus? – the movie, brilliantly, never provides an answer.  If “faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” why should the filmmakers let us off the hook?

Published in: on December 26, 2010 at 12:35 pm  Leave a Comment  


(Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

alone, on DVD in Cache 6, 12/21/10


Despite being dated and clumsy in a myriad of ways, this movie — miraculously — still works.  I knew most of its secrets ahead of time, and found the pacing extremely slow at various points — and yet the movie’s final act gripped me mercilessly, as if I were experiencing it afresh in 1960.   Psycho is a thriller without a protagonist; its plot moves forward largely through the introduction of new characters, even towards the end.  Anthony Perkins’s performance is awe-inspiring — charming, subtle, and indelibly creepy, his soft voice and convulsive smiles masking a private world of dementia.  It’s one element of the film that hasn’t dated at all.

Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 11:16 am  Leave a Comment  

The Tourist

(Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2010)

with Mom, Dad, Devin, Caitlin, and Christine Gray, Redstone Cinemas, 12/20/10


The plot of The Tourist will bear not one moment of scrutiny, but it’s a pleasurably old-fashioned concoction: charming stars flirting dangerously (yet tenderly!) in sumptuous locales.  Johnny Depp is marvelous — baffled, shy, winningly spontaneous, with the clumsy grace of an old silent comedian.  Angelina Jolie wears a tight half-smile for almost the entire film, but when she breaks into a true smile, it’s easy to imagine falling in love with her.  The Tourist isn’t as good as it might, or should, have been (especially considering that the director made The Lives of Others), but if you surrender yourself to it, it will entertain you copiously.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 8:49 pm  Leave a Comment  


(Kevin Smith, 1994)

alone, on DVD, 1681 3rd Ave., Apt 3C, 12/10/10


What’s most striking is the confidence.  Kevin Smith had never directed a movie before, but Clerks betrays not the slightest sign of self-doubt; it’s quietly assured, with the courage of its own slapdash convictions.  All the characters sound more or less the same, and Smith goes to great lengths to set up a necrophilia joke that just isn’t very funny, but Clerks immerses us in a vividly particular world, and there’s enough clever dialogue and bizarre incident to keep us engrossed.  Also, Jeff Anderson is great as Randal; Smith’s rapid-fire, convoluted prose seems to come as naturally to him as breathing.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reservoir Dogs

(Quentin Tarantino, 1992)

alone, on DVD, 1681 3rd Ave., Apt 3C, 12/10/10


Not too ambitious, not too intricate — just a nice little guys-in-a-warehouse-after-a-failed-heist movie, full of blood and sweat and profanity and keenly observed details.  Some of the acting is a little awkward — especially Tim Roth’s mangled American accent — but the patter is entertaining, the music is good, the filming is crisp and effective.  And then there’s Michael Madsen — cool, strange, and captivating as Vic Vega, the pyscho with loyalties.  He lets the language, and the character, sink deep into his skin, and he moves to a rhythm that’s all his own.  It’s quite something to stand out in this cast, but Madsen does, by a mile.  He’s a treat to watch.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 8:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Black Swan

(Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

alone, 1st Ave. UA (at 85th St.), 12/10/10


Dark, fatalistic fantasy with horror-movie trappings.  Beautifully done, but it’s hard to see what the point is, unless it’s that mentally ill people don’t always function very well.

Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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