Friday, August 28, 2015

Casting By

Casting By, a documentary about casting directors, sheds light on the dawn of the casting director as an independent creative player in the world of film and television.  It’s interesting stuff if you’re a movie buff, but I suspect it would put a general audience to sleep.
The story takes focuses on Marion Dougherty, a brilliant New York casting director who defined the job.  Just as Dougherty was coming into her own as a casting director in New York – based network television, the studio system was coming apart in Los Angeles.  When the studios stopped keeping a roster of reliably stereotypical role players on contract and transitioned to hiring afresh for each new film, they needed someone who knew the talent pool.  They needed someone who knew how to read a script and see a certain performer or type of performer.  They needed a casting director.
Dougherty filled that role, and in so doing she garnered the respect of many of the great filmmakers of her day.  While she was at it, she trained the next generation of casting directors and shaped her profession for years to come.  Casting By tells her story with verve, and sprinkles it with interviews with such luminaries as Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.  However, the film assumes a familiarity with the motion pictures of the late sixties and early seventies (Dougherty’s heyday) that many viewers may not share.  If you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, you can’t know how perfectly cast John Voight and Dustin Hoffman were in that film.  The same goes for Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, or a number of the other actors in a number of the other films Casting By expects you to have seen.
That said, Casting By taught this film buff a few things about the history of auteur-era American filmmaking, and it did so in an entertaining fashion.  If you’ve done your homework, you’ll probably enjoy Casting By.  I know I did.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Best Offer

The Best Offer could as easily been entitled Geoffrey Rush is a Really Good Actor.  In the film, Rush plays an art and antiques valuator and auctioneer with a tightly controlled, distant life.  He is his work, and he is very little else.

Until, that is, he meets a girl.

Once he meets a girl, the plot kicks in.  It’s a perfectly fine, if heavy handed, tale, but the tale isn’t the draw of The Best Offer.  The draw of this film is the opportunity to watch Rush assay a particular kind of solitary gentleman, then to watch him develop this character into a three-dimensional man.  He really is breathtaking, even if the film he’s in begins to fade from memory mere days after its viewing.  I do enjoy Geoffrey Rush.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a melodrama set in 1920s China, the late warlord period in which various factions vied for power while Japan quietly built its strength across the sea.  It involves a young missionary woman, a crafty warlord, and the collision of idealism with the practical requirements of power.

A very young Barbara Stanwyck plays the idealistic missionary woman (more of a girl, really, but I don’t think Barbara Stanwyck was ever truly a girl – she was probably the savviest young woman in the second grade), and Nils Asther plays General Yen.  Either Stanwyck is miscast or I just can’t get over the impact of movies like Ball of Fire and Double Indemnity.  I just didn’t buy her idealism, and she can’t quite sell a religious speech on which the movie’s story hinges.  Asther makes a fine general, charming and ruthless, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by the fact that he was a made-up European guy surrounded by an Asian supporting cast.

Since I never bought into the female lead’s character, I never could quite suspend my disbelief and buy into the movie.  Yes, the photography was lovely, as were the sets and costumes.  If nothing else, Ms. Stanwyck was always a pleasure to watch.  But when the spell doesn’t work, we’re left with nothing but pictures and sound.  I wanted to love The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but it didn’t work for me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation pits Tom Cruise and his pals against SPECTRE KAOS HYDRA SMERSH COBRA FOWL VILE SCORPIO – aw, jeez, guys.  “The Syndicate?”  You’re putting them up against “The Syndicate?”  I could come up with five better names for evil organizations right off the top of my head:  1. SPAWN (Special Project for Anarchy, War, and Nachos (seriously, those things are really bad for you)); 2. OUCH (Organization to Undermine Capitalist Hypocrisy); 4.  MTI (Moustache Twirlers International); 5. The Bay City Rollers.  Honestly, this stuff isn’t hard.

Fortunately, choosing a boring moniker for the villains appears to be the only serious shortcut taken by this latest entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise.  Here’s a spy fantasy with a cleverly written script, well-shot action set pieces, cool gadgets, a beautiful heroine, and movie star’s movie star Tom Cruise busting his tukkas in one incredible stunt sequence after another.  This movie has exotic locales,  gymkata, motorcycle chases, gunfights, even a hacker character pushing a big red button – I mean, it has it all.  Best of all, it has laugh-out loud humor, a wonderful sense of fun, and absolutely world-class production values.  

While it can’t boast a sequence that tops the amazing Burj Khalifa bit from Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, this entry in the series delivers everything one could possibly hope for from this kind of film.  If you like this genre, I don’t see how you could possibly not enjoy Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Man, I just reviewed Paddington, which will probably make my yearly Top Ten.  How do you follow that?

Well, you could do worse than How to Train Your Dragon 2, a CGI action-adventure with beautiful animation, thrilling set-pieces, and touching emotional beats.

The film follows the continuing adventures of Hiccup and Toothless, a rider / dragon team, and the rest of the members of their Viking village as they seek to spread peace and love for dragonkind throughout their stylized version of Scandinavia.

Yes, there’s a villain.  And yes, there are more and bigger dragons, and yes, the stakes are (expectedly) higher in the sequel than in the original.  Ho hum.  Nevertheless, it’s all in the execution, and How to Train your Dragon 2 executes the material at the very highest level.  This is a wonderful adventure, technically awesome yet with a beating heart.

It just isn’t Paddington.  I think I should have watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad to cleanse my palate, because it turns out that a gentle little movie about a talking bear was one hard act to follow.

Sunday, August 09, 2015


Paddington is a carefully crafted, well intentioned, entirely adorable movie that my whole family enjoyed.  If you’re the kind of person who won’t see a kids’ movie without kids present, go make or find some and sit them down for Paddington.

Here’s the setup: Paddington is a walking, talking anthropomorphic bear who journeys from darkest Peru to modern London, there to find a family who will love him.  Upon his arrival, he meets the Browns, led by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville (who got my wife’s attention) and Sally Hawkins (who got mine).

[A quick aside about my feelings for Sally Hawkins: I first noticed her in Happy-Go-Lucky, in which she played a willfully cheerful and optimistic woman who, even though she often exasperated those around her, raised spirits and souls through her example.  Next, I saw her in Made in Dagenham, in which she played a union organizer of uncommon wiliness and determination.  Sally Hawkins could play Hannibal Lecter, and I’d root for her to find a particularly charming Chianti.]

Mr. Brown’s not too keen on inviting a bear into his home, but Mrs. Brown overrules him and opens the door, much to the delight of their boy and horror of their girl.  What follows is a lovely story of a little bear trying to fit in, trying to find a home, and trying to elude the devilish taxidermist / commando / all-around villain Nicole Kidman.

[Another aside, this time about actors, villains, and children’s movies: You can tell a lot about an actor by how he or she approaches the role of villain in a children’s movie.  On the one hand, you look at David Cross in Alvin and the Chipmunks.  He’s clearly slumming it, holding his nose while he goes through the motions and collects the paycheck.  On the other, you admire the gold standard: Peter Dinklage in Underdog.  Dinklage understands that a serious actor can take portraying a comic villain in a children’s film seriously, hitting just the right balance of menace and harmlessness.  It is hard to do, and only the best can pull it off.]

Ms. Kidman makes for a wonderful comic villain: evil enough to give the climax real stakes, yet icily silly enough to avoid actually frightening young viewers.  She measures up to the Dinklage Standard of age-appropriate villainy, turning in her best performance since The Others.  It helps that she has the good taste to recruit, for a henchman, the wonderful Peter Capaldi (In the Loop) – another actor who absolutely nails it.

I sense a theme emerging.  Producer David Heyman lined up top talent for Paddington, from voice actors like Ben Whishaw, Imelda Staunton, and Michael Gambon, to the onscreen performers I’ve noted above.  The talent lineup, however, doesn’t stop with the cast.  Paddington the Bear, himself, is a wonder of computer animated and practical effects.  Falling somewhere between photorealistic and teddy bear, he’s like a real bear, but with the rough edges sanded down and wearing an adorable hat.  The costuming, the set design, the color palette, everything about this film is captivating, serving to create a world just real enough to keep things grounded, yet magical enough to whisk us away. 

In short, Paddington is a wonderful, wonderful film.  Bravo to director Paul King and everyone who came together to make this gem.  I loved it.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015


Walking out of Ant-Man, my oldest engaged me in the following conversation:

“Whadja think, Dad?”
“It was fine.”
“Why didn’t you like it?”
“I did like it.  It was fine.”
“But not good.  What was wrong with it?”
“Nothing.  It was fine.”
It really was fine.  It starred Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd, both of whom are always welcome presences.  It featured solid supporting work from Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, and especially Michael Peña.  I laughed at the jokes.  I grooved to the visuals.  I lost track of time.
However, Ant-Man never entirely captured my imagination.  It set itself up as a caper movie, then paid off the caper at the end of the second act and segued into just another superhero fistfight picture.  Granted, Ant-Man has some fun with this trope by setting the fight on a toy train (the combatants are ant-sized, after all).  However, this just led me to wonder why the villain’s laser beams blow up the train set’s wooden models, as opposed to simply burning holes through them.  Were the models filled with gunpowder and gasoline?  Who makes toys like that?  And at what point were we supposed to find dog-sized (relative to the protagonist) ants charming, instead of revolting and scary?
Perhaps I’m tiring of the genre for the same reason I never got into superhero comics in the first place.  The outfits and motivations may change from title to title, but they all seem to boil down to the same thing: men in silly costumes punching one another.  I’d just as soon watch one of the better Rocky movies.
That said, the actors *are* fun to watch.  The jokes *do* land.  The visuals *are* cool.  I really did lose track of time.  Ant Man is by no means a bad movie.  It’s pleasant.  It’s fun.
I liked it.
It was fine.