The Player Always Dials for Help in Phenix City

The Phenix City Story (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

After his election as Attorney General of Alabama in 1954, Albert Patterson was assassinated by forces resisting his efforts to clean up organized crime in Phenix City. Fortunately, his death compelled state action in the corrupt town.

The beginning of this film, featuring reporter Clete Roberts interviewing residents of the city, straddles the line between historical fiction and documentary, ten years before Truman Capote popularized the non-fiction novel as a serious dramatic form.

Despite growing up in Alabama, I was unfamiliar with the cautionary tale of “the wickedest city in the United States.” While the public typically thinks of the mafia and organized crime as the exclusive problems of big cities like New York, Chicago, and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, this film reminds us crime and profiteering are not limited to large urban centers.

Dial 1119 (1950)

Dial 1119 (1950)

Escaped mental patient Gunther Wycoff barricades himself in a bar across the street from the home of police psychiatrist, Dr. Faron, who he blames for his imprisonment.

Despite objections from the police, Dr. Faron is murdered when he tries to reason with his deluded former patient, forcing the police to storm the bar and kill Wycoff.

This straightforward B picture about a deranged killer is only interesting for the insight it provides regarding attitudes about mental illness in 1950. The clearly mentally ill Wycoff is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, but if it were made today, the film would portray him as a sympathetic victim of his illness, unfairly punished by the system designed to protect him.

The Player (1992)

The Player (1992)

When Hollywood executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbin) receives threatening postcards, he confronts David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio), the rejected writer he suspects is responsible.

After a brief fight in the alley outside a movie theater, Mill kills Kahane only to discover another writer was behind the threats. After a series of Machiavellian moves, Mill, now callously dating Kahane’s ex-girlfriend, rises to head of the studio, but must make a lucrative deal with his tormentor to prevent information regarding Kahane’s murder from being released to the public.

After the huge success of MASH (1970) and Nashville (1975), Altman’s films in the later 70s were critically lauded, but failed to make as much money many as his earlier efforts. Focused on the bottom line, studios were increasingly reluctant to finance his projects and he spent much of the 1980s struggling to find funding.

This film exposes the artistically hostile environment created by studios worried more about their profit margin than the artistic merit of their product.

In his DVD commentary, Altman said it was “mild satire which offended no one.” Sadly, Altman’s insistence on being inoffensive means the film loses its punch. It’s too mild to be an effective satire, but too satirical to be an effective drama. Robbins is well cast as the sad sack Mill who slowly transforms into a cold-hearted executive, it’s fun seeing Lyle Lovett play against type as a police detective partnered with Whoopi Goldberg, it’s always a delight to see Dean Stockwell, and spotting the myriad stars who cameoed as themselves is an amusing parlour game which gives the film an authenticity lacking in other Hollywood satires, but I wish the film had been braver. Ironically, this film about the unjustified compromises art must make to economic necessities, feels like a half-truth, almost like its bitterness was reigned in by a studio worried about how it would play in Peoria.

The Piercing Carols

A Christmas Carol (2009)

A Christmas Carol (2009)

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman) visits his former partner,the rich but miserable, Ebenezer Scrooge (Jim Carey) to warn him he needs to change his selfish ways. On Christmas Eve, three ghosts (all played by Carey) show Scrooge visions of Christmases Past, Present, and Future and by the end of the night, he’s a changed man, abandoning his previous materialism for an enlightened humanism.

This adaptation of Charles Dickens’s famous story, features top-notch performances from Carey, Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth, and Robin Penn Wright and director Robert Zemeckis makes good use of motion capture technology to create a visually arresting film, but unfortunately it feels hollow.

The distance created by innovative filming techniques prevents the performers and audience from fully investing in the story and Carey’s natural tendency to overact detracts from the film’s dramatic needs. Ultimately, this adaptation doesn’t add anything; it’s a well wrapped Christmas present, but it’s empty inside.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer (2013)

After a botched attempt to correct global warming inadvertently caused an ice age, all of humanity lives on a train where society is organized around class based distinctions.

The upper class lives in opulence at the front of the train, while the lower class lives in deplorable conditions in the rear, barely surviving.

Fed up with their situation, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), leads a rebellion to wrest control of the train, guided by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and assisted by Edgar (Jamie Bell).

The rebellion fights its way to the front, defeating the forces led by Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), but when they finally confront the train’s owner Wilford (Ed Harris), he surprises them with uncomfortable revelations about the train and their own rebellion.

Chris Evans shows something here beyond the boyish charm which has endeared him to film fans as Johnny Storm and Steve Rogers. From Alien (1979) to Doctor Who, John Hurt has a long history of work in science fiction, but this will surely rank as one of his best.

Adapted from a French graphic novel by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, this English film is an amazing achievement, managing to make a film about people trapped on a train feel large and expansive. Like the best science fiction films, it respects and trusts its audience to understand the bigger picture. This is about the depths to which humanity will sink for survival and the nature of rebellions which often wind up replacing one set of oppressive despots with another.

Don’t Mind the Tall Dark Stranger

Megamind (2010)

Megamind (2010)

As their home planet died, Megamind (Will Ferrell) and Metro Man (Brad Pitt) were sent to Earth, where the two outsiders embarked on opposite paths. Metro Man became a beloved super hero, while Megamind chose a life of villainy.

Continue reading “Don’t Mind the Tall Dark Stranger”

500 Mummies

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

As he nears death, Qin Shi Huang (Jet Li), the first emperor of China, sends his lackey, General Ming, to find a mysterious sorceress, Zi Yuan, who’s allegedly discovered the secret of immortality.

After he discovers a budding romance between Ming and Yuan, a jealous Huang executes Ming, and, in retaliation, Zi Yuan immolates him and turns his army into the famed Terracotta Army.

Two thousand years later, archaeologist Alex O’Connell discovers the emperor’s tomb, and, after unwittingly awakening his spirit, enlists the aid of his parents, Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello), Zi Yuan (who really is immortal) and her daughter Lin, to defeat Huang.

This is my favorite of Stephen Sommers series of Mummy films, but it’s a poor imitation of the Indiana Jones series. While the Indy films feature a clearly recognizable evil, these movies don’t have an obvious boogeyman and by the time this film sets up why I should care about Huang, my interest waned.

Additionally, the Indiana Jones films feature well-known archaeological items such as the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. While the Terracotta Army is impressive, it doesn’t have nearly the same level of cache in the Western world.

Of course, the primary reason this film feels like a lesser version of Indiana Jones is the talent involved. Harrison Ford > Brendan Fraser and Spielberg + Lucas > Stephen Sommers.

If you’re looking for escapist, pulpy entertainment, this’ll do, but it could have been a lot better.

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Chronicling the 500 day relationship of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) from Tom’s point of view, this is a fun look at the ups and downs of love: the initial burst of excitement, the honeymoon, the passion, the doldrums, the routine, the jealousies, and the heartache. Presented out of chronological order, it juxtaposes funny, charming scenes of initial flirtation with Tom’s depression after the relationship ends, bringing both scenes into sharper focus.

Early in their relationship, Tom tells Summer he believes she’s his true love, but Summer defiantly declares she doesn’t believe such a thing exists.

On day 290, they end their relationship and Tom spends the next several weeks falling into a pit of despair. Months later the erstwhile couple reconnects at a wedding where Tom misreads Summer’s invitation to a party at her place. He thinks she wants to rekindle their relationship and is crushed to learn it’s actually her engagement party.

In a heartbreaking, tender moment, Summer admits Tom was right about true love, but confesses she found it with someone else.

Co-starring the always dependable Clark Gregg as Tom’s boss and the precocious Chloë Grace Moretz as Tom’s painfully honest sister, this sweet film about falling in and out of love works because of the incredible chemistry of its two leads.

Deschanel is funny, flighty, and a little flaky. Undeniably cute, she’s the epitome of everything appealing about hipster culture. And Gordon Levitt, one of the most likable young actors in Hollywood, makes sad sack Tom more sympathetic than he has any right to be.

All three of Marc Webb’s feature films (including the two Andrew Garfield Spider-man films) explore the crevices and cracks in seemingly healthy, loving relationships suggesting failed relationships and lost love are an essential part of our development and even the happiest of endings involves a little heartbreak.