This Summer: The Next Karate Kid in the Battle of the Year!

July 3, 2014 progress: 3 movies

The Next Karate Kid (1994)
The Next Karate Kid (1994)

1) The Next Karate Kid (1994)

If the Karate Kid, Part III was an unnecessary coda to the franchise, this film (released only four years later) is an even worse idea: a reboot with a (gasp) female fighter.

Miyagi travels to Boston and finds himself once again mentoring a troubled youth: the granddaughter of one of his old war buddies, Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank).

He becomes her guardian and takes her to a Buddhist monastery where she learns the true nature of karate and uses it to combat her enemies at school.

There’s a weird subplot involving an injured hawk (which the filmmakers hammer home as a symbol for Julie’s broken spirit).  The film ends with the hawk flying free, symbolizing Julie’s new-found self-confidence.

Pat Morita earned an Academy Award nomination for his work as Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid, but he didn’t know when to walk away, playing Miyagi in three more films (at least two too many).  I’m sure the films provided a comfortable income, which I suppose is the point of any career, but it doesn’t command respect.

The main reason to watch this is to see Hilary Swank before she became a two-time Oscar winner. If she can establish a critically successful career after starring in a glorified TV movie like this, there’s hope for struggling actors everywhere.

The other reason to watch is Michael Ironside, who continues the series tradition of comically evil big bads.  He plays Colonel Dugan who leads the Alpha Elite, an exclusive security fraternity at Julie’s school. Supposedly, Mr. Ironside is a method actor; the thought of him staying in character as Colonel Dugan between takes cracks me up.

What the hell is a security fraternity?  Why is a paramilitary organization allowed to roam the school?

It’s fun to see Walton Goggins in a small role as a member of the Alpha Elite.  I’m a huge fan of his work in The Shield and highly recommend the series if you haven’t seen it.

The first film in the series is a classic.  This film is a classically bad film, a pathetic attempt to extend the life of the franchise.

Battle of the Year (2013)
Battle of the Year (2013)

2) Battle of the Year(2013)

Speaking of bad movies, this film by Benson Lee is a fictionalized retelling of his earlier documentary, Planet B-Boy.  Both films focus on b-boying, which is apparently the modern equivalent of breakdancing.

Every year since 1990, there has been an annual b-boying tournament known as The Battle of the Year.  In this tournament, teams (or crews) from around the world compete in a choreographed competition.  The United States has not won in fifteen years.

In this film, Jason Blake (Josh Holloway) is recruited to coach a Dream Team of b-boyers to reclaim the title for the US.  Rapper Chris Brown plays one of the members of the team; Brown has charisma, but he’s not a particularly effective actor.

How did Josh Holloway not parlay his success as Sawyer on Lost into more lucrative and respectable work.  Lost went off the air in 2010.  Three years later, he’s playing the lead in a film about b-boying?

This film is a cross between Remember the Titans and Stomp the Yard (which also featured Brown): this is not a compliment.  Perhaps one day, b-boying will become a favorite pastime of millions of Americans.  Perhaps the annual Battle of the Year will one day rival the Super Bowl as a premiere sporting event.  Maybe then, someone can make a decent film about it.

Summer Stock (1950)
Summer Stock (1950)

3) Summer Stock (1950)

In her last MGM musical, Judy Garland plays Jane Falbury, who’s engaged to the stiff Orville (Eddie Bracken) and lives a quiet, idyllic life on her farm in the Midwest, until her sister Abigail arrives with her theater friends looking for a place to rehearse. Abigail is engaged to the director of the troupe, Joe Ross (Gene Kelly).  Reluctantly, Jane agrees to let them use her farm for a rehearsal space and soon finds herself falling in love with Joe, who encourages her to participate in theatrical performances.

It’s a fun, “putting on a show” musical in the tradition of Babes in Arms,which featured Garland and a young Mickey Rooney.

In many ways, this film was a transition for MGM.  Garland was on her way out, while Kelly was on the rise.  In a few short years, Gene Kelly would be headlining the Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) and starring in the definitive musical from the studio: Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Like most MGM musicals, this film is an excuse to watch the stars perform song and dance numbers.  In that regard this film does not disappoint.  It features a wonderful musical number by Garland: ““Get Happy” and several by Kelly, including one involving a newspaper and a creaky board.

Eddie Bracken was comic perfection in the Preston Sturges films The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).  He’s very funny as Jane’s uptight fiancée Oliver.  To younger audiences, he’s best remembered as the proprietor of Wally World in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) and the owner of a toy store in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992).

This is one of the better MGM musicals; it’s a great source of exposure to Judy Garland’s career outside of The Wizard of Oz and a good introduction to Gene Kelly.

The Karate Kid Voyages to a Field in England

July 2, 2014 progress: 3 movies

A Field in England (2013)
A Field in England (2013)

1) A Field in England (2013)

Set during the English Civil War, this beautiful black and white film features alchemists, hidden treasure, and betrayal.  Characters die only to inexplicably reappear.  There’s cowardice, jealousy, and greed.

It does a great job of conveying the chaos of the Renaissance.  Facts are fluid; rumors are currency; allegiances are tenuous.

It’s a fun film, which would be great paired with The Fisher King (1992).  Watching them together would provide a nice view of the emerging modern world.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

2) The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

This was the first color film from famed visual effect artist Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered techniques in stop-motion and visual effects which laid the foundation for the special effects wizardry in nearly every blockbuster film of the past half century.

Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Tim Burton, and John Lassester are only a few of the famous directors who have acknowledged a debt to his work.  George Lucas has claimed if it weren’t for Harryhausen, there would be no Star Wars.  His legacy within the film industry is secure.

His films, focused on mythical creatures, have done more to influence the way we think of monsters than perhaps anything else in the twentieth century.  If you close your eyes and imagine a frightening monster, chances are it was first imagined by Ray Harryhausen.

His last major production was Clash of the Titans (1981).  With big stars and impressive visuals, this film has become a beloved touchstone for Generation Xers and continues to resonate in a way few thirty year old films can.

Since then, filmmaking has become more reliant on computers and digital effects, making the practical effects of people like Harryhausen obsolete.

If you’ve new to his work, this is a decent place to start.  The story is a little thin, but the visuals are impressive and miles ahead of most films from the late 1950s.

The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)
The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)

3) The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)

Unplanned trilogies usually result in subpar third films (I’m naming this unwritten rule the Vincent Corelone corollary).

At least The Karate Kid Part II tried to expand upon the ideas of the original film, taking us to Okinawa and Mr. Miyagi’s homeland where the relationship between Daniel and Miyagi was reversed and strengthened.

This film fails to cover any new ground; it’s not a sequel so much as a retread of the original.

This film could be subtitled: The Revenge of the Cobra Kais.  The leader of the disgraced dojo from the original film, John Kreese, plots his revenge and recruits an old friend from his days in Vietnam, Terry Silver, to help him enact an elaborate scheme designed to humiliate Daniel in the final of the next karate tournament.

After Daniel’s mother allowed him to travel to Japan with Mr. Miyagi in the sequel, where they survived a typhoon, she is absent from this film.  She doesn’t even bother to tell the returning pair the apartment building where she and Daniel lived and Mr, Miyagi worked was demolished.

This movie is a desperate and unnecessary attempt to milk money from a profitable franchise which tarnishes the legacy of the original.

The only thing worth watching is the over the top evil of Terry Silver.  He feels like an old school comic book villain, slightly more believable than the characters in the Batman television series from the 1960s.

After the Shooting

July 1, 2014 progress: 2 movies

After Tiller (2013)
After Tiller (2013)

1) After Tiller(2013)

In 2009, pro-life activist Scott Roeder assassinated abortionist George Tiller, one of the only doctors in the United States who performed late-term abortions.

This documentary follows the four doctors who continue to perform these controversial procedures following his murder.

It provides insight into the mindset of people willing to do something most everyone in the country finds reprehensible: they view what they are doing as a crusade.

The movie goes to great lengths to show them in a favorable light.  We see a parade of women who are alone and feel they have nowhere else to turn.  The movie wants us to believe LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson, and Shelley Sella are the only people in the world who care for the plight of these women.

However, the movie is not a full portrait.  It does not attempt to reconcile the overwhelming public distaste for the procedures they perform with their status as crusaders.

The movie avoids showing any actual procedures because the filmmakers know this would make it impossible for most people to view them as anything but butchers.

This movie is an attempt to humanize late-term abortion and make it more palatable to the general public.  It equates what most Americans view as a barbaric practice with a struggle for civil rights.

It shows and provides insight into what drives these doctors, but it’s a biased portrait, better viewed as a piece of political propaganda than a documentary.

The Shooting (1966)
The Shooting (1966)

2) The Shooting (1966)ht

When I heard this was an obscure early Jack Nicholson western film, I was excited, but the film was a bit of a disappointment.  The film tries too hard to not tell a story, to remain unresolved.

Bounty hunter Willet Gashade and his slow-witted friend are found by a mysterious young woman who refuses to tell them her name.  She convinces them to help her get to Kingsely.  They’re trailed by Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), a stranger dressed in black.  All of the group’s horses die of exhaustion, and the slower friend is killed, but the rest of the group reaches their destination, where they find Gashade’s twin brother, Coin.  Coin and the mysterious woman shoot each other dead.  A stunned Gashade lies next to the woman, while Spear stumbles away into the desert.

That’s an overly simplistic version of the story, but the movie isn’t concerned with advancing a narrative.  The plot is a means not an end.  The purpose of this film is to evoke an atmosphere and feeling of what The West was like; it does a passable job, but there are better movies about nameless characters, men in black, and gunslingers: any of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns are better than this.

The Trees are Glowing

June 30, 2014 progress: 2 movies

Afterglow (1997)
Afterglow (1997)

1) Afterglow (1997)

Julie Christie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of former B-movie actress Phyllis Mann, but I can’t understand why.  This is a meandering  mess of a movie.

Lucky Mann (Nick Nolte) discovers his fifteen year old daughter was the result of an affair between his wife and one of co-stars.  He responds violently and their daughter runs away.

Lucky and Phyllis reconcile and move to Montreal where they suspect their daughter is living, but their relationship has changed.  By mutual agreement they pledge to forgo intimacy with each other or anyone else.

Nine years later, they have not found their daughter, and the lack of intimacy is taking a toll.

Lucky is hired by a struggling young couple, Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Jeffrey Byron, to do some repairs.  Marianne desperately wants a child, but Jeffery is too busy with his career.  Marianne is infatuated with Lucky and seduces him.  Echoing the toxicity which ruined the Mann’s relationship, Marianne becomes pregnant with another man’s baby.

Eventually, the Manns reconcile for real and reuinte with their daughter.

The movie has no pulse.  It’s a lifeless morality play about the dangers of cheating on your spouse, unconcerned about developing characters.  I didn’t care about the Manns, or the Byrons, or the state of their respective relationships.  Boring, uninteresting characters plus pointless story equals a dud of a film.

Through the Olive Trees (1994)
Through the Olive Trees (1994)

2) Through the Olive Trees (1994)

This film is the third part of Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy. While Kiarostami has resisted any attempts to label them as a trilogy, it’s hard to see how else he expected audiences to view films so intertwined.

The first film, Where is the Friend’s Home (1987) is about a boy trying to return the notebook of one of his schoolmates.

The second film, And Life Goes On (1992), is about two men looking for the stars of the first film following an earthquake which killed thousands in the area it was filmed.

Through the Olive Trees is a fictionalized account of filming a small part of And Life Goes On.  One of the local actors filming a scene for the movie falls in love with one of the female actresses who does not reciprocate his feelings, complicating the filming of a key scene involving the two of them.  The film becomes an angst ridden contemplation of love and attraction, with a digression about the purpose and nature of art.

I love Kiarostami’s willingness to double down on the fictional nature of his art and make their artificiality a subject, but his films are not for everyone.  They’re often very slow and methodical, almost to the point of inertia.  He does not like action, or movement.  Instead, he enjoys lengthy, philosophical conversations.  A perfect Kiarostami film would be a late night marathon dorm living room discussion, the camera static, the participant coming in and going.

His films are not entertaining, but provocative.  Many critics have focused on his status as an Iranian filmmaker. They treat his work as a modern-day Rosetta Stone, mining it for what it tells about Iranian society and culture, but fail to ask what it tells us about the larger human condition.  As if to combat these misperceptions, Kiarostami’s recent work Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012) are set in decidedly non-Iranian locales with Japanese, English, French, and Italian dialogue.

It’s time for you to get a horse!

June 28, 2014 progress: 2 movies

About Time (2013)
About Time (2013)

1) About Time (2013)

Richard Curtis directed the superb Love Actually and wrote Notting Hill.  He helped create the seminal British TV comedies Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley.  Clearly, the man knows comedy.

What I didn’t know was he also knows science fiction.

This film is an unexpected mashup of the romantic comedy and science fiction genres.

When Tim Lake  turns twenty one, he discovers all of the men in his family possess the ability to travel back in time.  Tim uses this new skill for romantic purposes and courts Mary.

One of the great scenes in the movie is when Tim and Mary go on a date to a restaurant which serves its patrons in a dark room, simulating blindness for the customer.  I was sure this was a gag created for the film, but apparently Dans le Noir is a real thing.

Sure, Curtis breaks most of the “rules” for time travel, but the point of this film is not to get bogged down in the details of alternative timelines and butterfly effects; the point of the film is to highlight the importance of relationships and family.

The son of actor Brendan Gleason, Domhnall Gleason, is excellent as Tim; he has a nerdish charm which helps sell the film.

Rachel McAdams is a reliable female romantic lead.  She exploded on the scene with The Notebook (2004) and since has been in a string of hit films, including Wedding Crashers (2005), Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Midnight in Paris (2011).  She doesn’t do anything spectacular here, but the chemistry between her and Gleason is fun and infectious.

The best part of the movie is Bill Nighy as Tim’s dad, Harry Lake. Nighy is perfectly cast as a slightly eccentric, lovable old man.  He was a seasoned theater performer before his film career began in earnest in 2003 with Love Actually (also directed by Curtis).  Since then, he’s portrayed Davy Jones in The Pirates of the Carribean series, had a major part in the Nick Frost / Simon Pegg / Edgar Wright films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and a notable cameo in the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor.”

Margot Robbie has a cameo as a potential love interest for Tim, but she barely registers as the vapid and vain Charlotte.

This is a fun, sweet movie, like a cross between Love Actually and Futurama.  It’s not always logical, but the heart of this movie is what counts, and the heart is strong.  I’ve read a few comparisons to Groundhog Day another movie which isn’t concerned with telling a story as much as taking us on a character’s journey.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Groundhog Day, but no other film has either.

When this film enters into replay on cable or Netflix and finds its audience, it will develop a passionate following.  It’s a great complement to Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), another offbeat romantic film which also involved time travel.

2) Get a Horse! (2013)

This short premiered in theaters alongside Frozen.  This meant two things: 1) it was seen by pretty much everyone with a child under eight, 2) it was overshadowed by the film it preceded.  That’s a shame because this may be the best Mickey Mouse short of all time.

It’s one of the most inventive and imaginative short films I’ve seen.  In six minutes, it manages to deconstruct and reinvent a character which had existed for over eighty years.

Critics often talk about the Disney Renaissance.  Starting with The Little Mermaid in 1989, the Disney animation studios rose from the ashes and produced some of the best films in their history.  However, there was one aspect of the studio’s legacy left untouched during this era: Mickey Mouse.  I can’t think of any important work during the era involving the most famous character in the studio.

When Disney and Pixar merged in 2006, the Pixar ethos combined with the Disney brand to produce some of the best animated films of all time: Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, and, of course, Frozen.  The major difference between this most recent renewal and the earlier one is shorts like this and the recent Disney Channel series, Mickey Mouse , which show a willingness to take theiconography of Mickey and pair him with an updated sense of humor and playfulness.

For years, Mickey and company have been beloved, while Bugs and his Warner Brothers cohorts were funny.  If these recent developments are a sign of the direction Disney is pursuing with their properties, then we are in for a great time.

That Marriage is a Lemon!

June 27, 2014 progress: 2 movies

1) Lemon (1969)

This is an avant-garde film by Hollis Frampton, but it’s probably better thought of as an elaborate practical joke by Hollis Frampton.

Watch the video; it’s about eight minutes.

Before you curse me for wasting eight minutes of your life, remember this film was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.  This should either make us all very angry or inspire us; I’ll let you decide which.

Marriage Italian Style (1964)

Marriage Italian Style (1964)

2) Marriage Italian Style (1964)

This is a sort of spiritual cousin to the 1961 film Divorce, Italian Style; both films highlight the differences between American and European attitudes concerning marriage and relationships.

Domenico maintains a relationship with a country prostitute Filomena.  After several years, she fakes an illness and convinces him to marry her on her “deathbed.”  She convinces him to stay married for the sake of the child she bore him.

Sophia Loren stars as Filomena.  Loren is now remembered as a trivia question or one of the stars of Grumpy Old Men.  Fewer and fewer people have seen her in a film.  She’s a wonderful comic performer, who manages to make innocuous lines funny.  She’s always sexy, never in a preening or pandering way, but in a much more sophisticated way.  She understood sex appeal was more about what wasn’t said and shown than what is.  She possesses a rare ability to turn a funny scene into a poignant one with a drop of an eye.  Few women possess this talent: Carole Lombard did, Barbra Streisand came close in What’s Up, Doc?  Anjeclia Huston has it, Jennifer Lawrence may have it.

Marcello Mastroianni is a rare breed of a different sort: a performer from a foreign country who rarely makes English language films, but manages to achieve success in America.  Closely associated with Frederico Fellini, Mastroianni managed to create an image of sophistication and detachment which has become a stereotype of the continental European, particularly Italians.

The film was produced by Sophia Loren’s husband Carlo Ponti. With a few notable exceptions such as Doctor Zhivago, Ponti did not produce many English language films, so his work is not as well-known in the United States, but the sheer volume of his output as a film producer makes him one of the most important  figures in European film history.

The director, Vittoria de Sica, helped usher in neorealism and established foreign language films as an artistically and intellectually rewarding pursuit in America with The Bicycle Thief.

This is a good movie, which reveals much about the way marriage is viewed in European.   In Europe, the focus is on the commitment of marriage, it doesn’t matter what transpires, as along as you stay together.  Mastroianni refused to get a divorce from his wife because of his commitment to her, but had a series of lovers and long-term relationships with other women throughout their marriage.  In America, the focus is not on the permanence of the relationship, but on its exclusivity.  In the context of the current debate about competing definitions of marriage, it’s more important than ever to understand how marriage has evolved and meant different things to different people.

Frida gracefully swam with sharks

June 26, 2014 progress: 3 movies

Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Maria Full of Grace (2004)

1) Maria Full of Grace (2004)

Maria Alvarez works in a sweatshop in her native Colombia.  She quits her job and discovers she’s pregnant by her boyfriend she does not love.  Desperate for money, she agrees to become a drug mule, swallowing 62 pellets of heroin and flying to New York City with two other smugglers.

When they meet up with their handlers, they’re quarantined until they pass the pellets.  Lucy, one of her fellow smugglers dies when the pellet inside of her bursts.  Maria panics and runs away, taking refuge with Lucy’s sister in New York.

When Lucy’s sister discovers Maria’s involvement with Lucy’s death, she kicks her out on the street.  With nowhere to turn, Maria returns the drugs to  the smugglers for the promised money.

It’s an effective dramatization of the reality of the drug trade.  Most smugglers are either coerced or tempted by the offer of immense money and a chance to escape oppressing poverty.  As horrifying as the drug trade is, for too many people it represent the easiest and best opportunity for a better life.

Swimming with Sharks (1994)
Swimming with Sharks (1994)

2) Swimming with Sharks (1994)

Guy is hired as assistant to legendary Hollywood studio executive Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey).  Buddy is a cruel and sadistic boss, but Guy is determined to stick out the job because he sees it as a golden opportunity.

Guy’s only release from the hell of his daily existence is his girlfriend, Dawn (Michelle Forbes).  Dawn is also an executive at the studio who, unbeknownst to Guy, has had a long time affair with Buddy and is struggling to get out from under his control.

When Guy is fired by Buddy, he takes drastic action: kidnapping Buddy with the intent to kill him.  Vulnerable for the first time in a long time,  Buddy opens up to Guy, sharing many his fears and insecurities.  When Dawn arrives to plead for Buddy’s release, Guy must make a horrific choice.

The film is a great vehicle for Kevin Spacey.  He’s well cast as a nefarious, manipulative man in position of power, foreshadowing his magnificent work in House of Cards.

Michelle Forbes career has been mostly marked by well received roles in TV shows such as 24, Homicide: Life on the Street, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Battlestar Galactica.  She’s good here, but is possibly a tad but out of her depth.  She’s better as a supporting player not as effective as a romantic lead.

This movie is a rare headlining role for Frank Whaley as Guy.  It probably would have been a better film with someone else, maybe Tim Robbins or John Cusack.

It’s a funny commentary about the lengths to which people in Hollywood will go for power and success.  It reminds King of Comedy (1983), but it’s not quite as good as the previous film.

Frida (2002)
Frida (2002)

3) Frida (2002)

I’m not a huge fan of Frida Kahlo; her work seems repetitive to me, but this movie about her life was fascinating and a lot better than I anticipated.

This movie begins with the accident Ms. Kahlo suffered at 18: the bus she was riding collided with a trolley.  For the rest of her life, she experienced constant pain and required continued treatment for the ailments stemming from the accident.  During her long recovery, her father brought her a canvas and her passion for painting was born.

No mention of Frida Kahlo’s life would be complete without Diego Rivera, her husband, occasional lover, sometime rival, and chief champion.  Their unconventional relationship was the epitome of dysfunction, full of affairs and jealousies.

The couple travelled to New York when Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Rivera to paint Man at the Crossroads.  Rivera’s work on the mural was never completed because of a political disagreement; Rivera, a committed Marxist, intended for the work to glorify his political beliefs.  The two returned to Mexico, humbled and frustrated.  Soon, their marriage was dealt a serious blow when Rivera began an affair with Kahlo’ sister.

Their relationship remained strained until Rivera asked Kahlo to host Leon Trotsky during his exile from Russia.  Kahlo and Trotsky soon began an affair, until his wife discovered their affair and demanded they leave.  When Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City, both Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were interrogated as suspects.

The movie ends abruptly, but this echoes Kahlo’s life. Her long history of illness contributed to her premature death at 47.

This is the highlight of Salma Hayek’s career and proof she can do more than serve as eye candy (although the rest of her career stands in stark contrast).

Alfred Molina is excellent as Diego Rivera.  Despite a long career, Molina has somehow managed to remain semi-anonymous.  He was in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Boogie NightsMagnolia, and played Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, but this is his most realized role.  He’s excellent as the contradictory Rivera whose only true loves were himself and his art.

Geoffrey Rush has seemingly been forever. The Australian actor broke through to stardom with his Best Actor winning performance as pianist David Helfgott in Shine (1996), and became a star as Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Carribean films .  He’s also been Marqui de Sade and Peter Sellers, and was nominated for Academy Awards for his work in Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech.  Rush seems like a poor choice to play the famed Russian Revolutionary, but he more than holds his own brief time in the film.

Ed Norton cameos as Nelson Rockefeller, and is the weakest part of the cast.  It felt like stunt casting.

The director of the film, Julie Taymor is better known for her work in theater, particularly on Broadway, where she was the director of the original production of The Lion King and the infamous production of Spider-man: Turn off the Dark.  In addition, Traymor has directed several operas and Shakespearean dramas.  Her filmography is limited; her other major film is the Beatles inspired film Across the Universe (2007).

This is a good movie about a difficult woman, who was hard to sympathize with.  The movie turns her stormy relationship with Diego Rivera into a grand opera.  Traymor wisely chose to foreground the art in the movie by starting several scenes as paintings which then dissolve into live-action.  Since Frida’s work was largely autobiographical, this technique helped to emphasize the relationship between her life and art.

You don’t have to be a fan of Kahlo’s work to appreciate the film, I certainly wasn’t.  This is very good biograhical picture, which mostly adheres to the proven forumla for these types of films, but manages to create a few pleasant surprises which helps to distinguish it from other tortured artist films like Lust for Life, or Pollock.

The Genius wrote a Sonata about a deal he made with the devil to avoid dying on the Battlefields of Earth

June 25, 2014 progress: 4 movies

Faust (2011)
Faust (2011)

1) Faust (2011)

This is a loose adaptation of the Faust legend by Russian director Alexander Sokurov.

Constantly searching for enlightenment, when Heinrich Faust becomes infatuated with young Gretchen, his friend Mauricius agrees to help Faust be with Gretchen in exchange for his soul.

There are plenty of better adaptations of the legend, including the 16th century play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.

This film can’t decide if Mauricius is the devil, a supernatural being, or just a very talented man.  The spiritual ramifications of the film are cheapened by the indecision.

Sokurov’s most famous film is Russian Ark (2002), a continuous tracking shot through the Winter Palace.

This film is a decent attempt at updating the Faust archetype, but misses the mark and diminishes the most vital elements.

Autumn Sonata (1977)
Autumn Sonata (1977)

2) Autumn Sonata (1977)

This is a collaboration between Swedish film giants Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman.

This was the final major theatrical release of Ingrid Bergman’s career, and she went out with a bang, playing an aging concert pianist, Charlotte, who’s called to visit her estranged daughter, Eva (played by Ingmar Bergman regular / sometime lover Liv Ullmann).  Charlotte was cold and distant during Eva’s formative years, focusing on her musical career instead of her family.  To add to the awkward family reunion, another daughter, Helena (who is paralyzed, comes to live with Eva during this time.

The movie is a tour de force in dysfunctional family relationships.  It has all of the family drama of the more recent film August: Osage County (2013), but doesn’t resort to cheap stunts like incest or suicide.  The characters involved are relatively normal people who made rational, albeit cold-hearted decisions based on their own self-interest.

This film, masterfully, doesn’t try to sensationalize the dysfunction, nor falsely promise familial reconciliation.  It’s a non-romantic view of families.  In this film, it is Eva’s insistence on clinging to unrealistic notions of family which thwart her from finding fulfillment.

Ullmann is almost always a delight when working with Bergman film and this is no exception.

Ingmar Bergman’s influence on the twentieth century can hardly be overstated.   He was one of the most celebrated artists in the primary artistic medium of the time.  His career spanned six decades and included some of the most personal and reflective films of all time.  Everyone is familiar with his image of the grim reaper playing chess with his next victim in The Seventh Seal (1957).  His other 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries is one of the earliest (and best) films focusing on an elderly man coming to terms with his life in his twilight years.    The trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) is a profound meditation on faith in a postmodern world.  Cries and Whispers (1972) is an unflinching look at the mixed emotions which accompany a loved one’s death following a long illness.

If you’re interested in seeing Ingrid Bergman as something other than Ilsa from Casablanca, I recommend this film.

It’s also one of the most accessible of Ingmar Bergman’s films, which are often layered with obscure and dense imagery.

Baby Geniuses (1999)
Baby Geniuses (1999)

3) Baby Geniuses (1999)

This is not a good movie.

A description of the plot is sufficient to cast a dubious pall.  A scientist, Dr. Kinder (Kathleen Turner), is convinced infants have an innate intellectual ability which is lost when they “cross over” and learn the dumbed down language of their parents.  She kidnaps babies from a local orphanage, conducts experiments on them, then uses the information from her experiments to build an empire of children’s educational toys.

That’s a stripped down version of the plot, but more than I care to remember.

It’s a poor idea, poorly executed.

How did talented people like Kathleen Turner, Christopher Lloyd, Peter MacNiccol, Kim Catrall, and Ruby Dee get involved in something this asinine?   I’m assuming they were blackmailed, or their agents are idiots, or, in a bizarre confluence of events, they were all nearing bankruptcy.

The remarkable thing is not that the film got made, but a studio executive watched this and liked it enough to move forward on a sequel.

If you like bad movies, or enjoy wasting time, watch this.

Battlefield (2000)
Battlefield (2000)

4) Battlefield Earth (2000)

Speaking of wastes of time.

This vanity project by John Travolta effectively ended his comeback.  A star in the 1970s, his career had fallen apart after a series of misfires in the 1980s, but in 1994 Quentin Tarrantino resurrected his career with Pulp Fiction.  This movie proves Travolta’s earlier poor decisions were no fluke.

Based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard and widely seen as a a Scientology apology, this is a stupendously bad movie.

Travolta plays Teri, a Psychlo security chief who, for political reasons, is condemned to remain on Earth indefinitely.  Forrest Whittaker plays his subordinate, Ker.  Together, they devise a plan to mine Earth’s gold and sell it.

One problem with their genius plan: Psychlos can’t breathe around gold, so they must use native humans to get it.

Barry Pepper plays a human slave recruited to mine the gold, who later leads a rebellion against the Psychlo occupation.

The Scientology elements certainly didn’t help the film’s box office, but the main problems is it’s a ridiculous film which never bothers to make us care about its characters.

Rumors suggest the film was only made because of Travolta’s willpower and then considerable clout.

He gambled audiences would flock to see it and lost.   Post Battlefield Earth, Travolta still has name recognition, but his career has never reached the same heights.

One burning question: what did Travolta have on Forrest Whittaker to convince him to be a part of this film?

It’s as bad as its infamy would suggest.

On Devil’s Island they have bugs in June

June 24, 2014 progress: 2 movies

Papillon (1973)
Papillon (1973)

1) Papillon (1973)

Steve McQueen is Henri Charrière (better known as Papillon).  He was a safecracker who was falsely imprisoned for murder and sentenced to hard labor on Devil’s Island.  There, he meets the scrawny embezzler Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman).  The two form an unlikely friendship and work together to escape.

To the Baby Boomer generation, Steve McQueen is the epitome of cool.  To men in their 60s, he was the idolized hero of their youth.  But his movies seem dated now.  He has charisma, but his ability make you believe in a character is limited.  In the stuff I’ve seen, he basically just plays Steve McQueen in every film.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dustin Hoffman can play just about any character, making audiences believe him   His Louis Dega is the most interesting thing in the film.  Despite his two Academy Awards, Hoffman is an underrated actor, often forgotten when people are asked to name the greatest actors.

Franklin Schaffner directed this film, Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970).  To go from iconic and somewhat campy science fiction, to huge war epic, to a portrait of a notorious prison escapee in a five-year period is a testament to his versatility as a director.

I liked this movie, but it plays like a lesser version of Shawshank Redemption.  I know it’s based on Papillon’s autobiography, but his story limits the film’s effectiveness.  His exploits are interesting, but it’s difficult to root for an unrepentant criminal, who may not be a murderer, but freely admits to being a crook and a thief.

It’s a good movie, and it may be Steve McQueen’s best work, but it’s a little underwhelming, and not as good as it could have been.

Junebug (2005)
Junebug (2005)

2) Junebug (2005)

A newly married couple travels to the husband’s hometown to see his family and visit a local artist his wife is trying to sign to her art gallery.

It’s a quirky, independent film which would be all but forgotten except for the amazing performance of Amy Adams.

Scott Wilson, now well-known because of his work as Herschel in The Walking Dead TV series plays the timid and quiet father of the family in the film.

The reason to watch this is Adams.  This film made her a star, and it should have.  She’s incredible as Ashley Johnsten.

Ashley is a nervous, and unsophisticated small-town girl.  Her marriage is on tenuous ground and she believes the baby she is about to have will solve her problems.  Adams takes what could have been a caricature and breathes life and vitality into the role.  The end of the film, which I don’t want to spoil, is heartbreaking entirely because Adams makes it so.

Too many films are so preoccupied with what they have to say, they forget to make a good movie.  This is a pro-family and pro-life film, but not in a way that berates opposing views.  It makes an argument, but doesn’t force anyone to agree.  You don’t have to share its worldview to appreciate the film’s artistry.

Senna was Fearless

June 21, 2014 progress: 2 movies

Fearless (1993)
Fearless (1993)

1) Fearless (1993)

Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) survives a plane crash and the experience changes him emotionally and psychologically;  he grows apart from his wife and son and grows closer to a few of the other survivors.  One of those survivors, Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez in an Oscar nominated role), lost her son in the crash.  While she struggles to adjust to life without her son, she develops feelings for Max.

The crash provides Max with insight into the human condition, but it’s not much deeper than the platitudes found on Hallmark cards or phony religious tracts.

The movie ends with Max having another near death experience which wakes him back to his normal life.

I like Jeff Bridges, I like John Turturro, and I like director Peter Weir (especially Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show), but this film fell a little flat.

I should clarify: I like older Jeff Bridges.  Post The Big Lebowksi (1998), his career went into overdrive, but his earlier work, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, isn’t as impressive.

Tom Hulce was phenomenal as Mozart in Amaadeus (1984), but his career never really took off.

I liked seeing John de Lancie (who was great as Q in Star Trek: Next Generation) as Max’s business partner and friend who died in the crash.  I’m not sure why he didn’t have a more impressive career.

Isabella Rossellini plays Klein’s wife, but the role is generic and doesn’t give her anything to do but suffer.

A young Benicio Del Toro plays Carla’s husband, but his role is also generic.

The best thing about the movie is John Turturro as Dr. Bill Perlman, the psychiatrist hired by the airline to treat the surviving passengers dealing with PTSD.

I wanted to like this movie, but it’s too hollow.  It wants to be profound but it doesn’t have anything to say.

Senna (2010)

Senna (2010)

2) Senna (2010)

This documentary chronicles the history of Brazilian motor-racer Ayrton Senna from his Formula One debut in 1984 to his death in a car accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

I’m not a huge fan of motor racing, and like most Americans, my knowledge of motor racing ends with NASCAR and the Indy 500.

Formula One is a mystery to me.  I’m familiar with a few names, like Michael Schumacher and  Mario Andretti, but that’s the limit of my knowledge of the sport.

I had not heard of Senna or his chief rival Alain Prost before this movie.  It was interesting to watch their rivalry develop, but not enough for me to watch this a second time.

Due to my lack of knowledge of the sport and the players involved, I wasn’t emotionally invested in the film.  The only thing I will take aware from it is an awareness of who Senna was and the role politics played in the rules of the sport (even rules designed for safety purposes).