Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman

You can’t put the words iconic and movie star in the same sentence without immediately thinking of the legendary Paul Newman. For nearly six decades, Newman came alive on screen as one of the world’s most recognizable personas. Responsible for many of the great movie characters of all time, Newman had an impeccable way of keeping our attention.

A ten time Oscar nominee, and winner for The Color of Money, Newman’s recent death prompts any film fan to ask: what was your favorite Newman?

While I am a great admirer of Newman’s, I haven’t nearly seen his entire body of work. So here I present you with the Newman roles that grabbed me. Here’s to the unprecedented Paul Newman.

The Hustler (1961)
Eddie Felson
A great introduction to stardom, Newman makes his presence known as an actor with a force to be reckoned with. Many critics consider this his best work.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Luke Jackson
One of my favorite films of all time, Newman’s timeless work as an imprisoned ex-war hero is one of the definitive film performances in the cinema’s history. I can watch this movie over and over, from the fated boxing match with George Kennedy, to the encouraging moment when he leads the other prisoners to pave the road all too quickly, to the egg eating contest; Newman’s Luke has never failed to communicate with audiences.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy
Newman has a great time with his younger co-star Robert Redford in a rousing true story about the famous outlaws. Newman makes his role fun, searing and iconic.

The Sting (1973)
Henry Gondorff
Back with his Butch Cassidy director and co-star, Newman and Redford blaze up with screen in this best picture winner. Through all the double crosses, you may not know if you can trust Newman, but you’ll damn sure have a fun time trying.

The Verdict (1982)
Frank Galvin
Newman began to accept his aging features when he took the ballsy role of an alcoholic lawyer who finally grows a conscience. Newman uses David Mamet’s pulsating script to deliver one of his best performances.

The Color of Money (1986)
Fast Eddie Felson
Reprising his Hustler role in Martin Scorsese’s fun pool hall flick, Newman’s performance finally got Newman the Oscar, which most regard as an overdue gift. Regardless, the film is encouraging and entertaining.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Sidney J. Mussburger
Fitting surprising well into the Coen brothers’ zany comic family, Newman, as a high-powered industry mogul, showed us his funny side to amusing results.

Road to Perdition (2002)
John Rooney
Newman delivered some of his best work as an ailing mafia boss in Sam Mendes’ haunting film. His scenes with Tom Hanks, in particular his last one, proved that the old man still had it.


Watching Ben Kingsley in Elegy is watching a master having a little fun. Kingsley dives head first into the role of David Kepesh, a successful writer who now teaches at Columbia. David has a habit of falling for his much younger students, so it’s no surprise when he becomes enraptured with the elegant Consuela (Penelope Cruz).

Soon, the two are engaged in a passionate romance that David (through his ironically cynical narration) feels is doomed. It’s simple: he’s too old… or she’s too young. But either way, it is going to have to end. Consuela feels differently, she’s in love and having fun, age is hardily a factor for her.

The beauty of Elegy is how director Isabel Coixet makes you feel for this immature, horny, old man. Because David is played by Ben Kingsley, it’s hard not to like him, even if he is a bit of a prick. For instance, David can’t seem to tell his frequent bedroom partner (a fiery Patricia Clarkson) about Consuela, he’s so afraid of the truth, afraid to be alone.

Dennis Hopper adds a nice touch as David’s best friend with a brutally “realistic” view on life. But it’s Cruz and Kingsley who bring everything to the table. As she did in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Cruz is proving that she can hold her own against some heavy acting players.

Elegy is a simple, yet delightfully crafted film. I wasn’t quite sure where the story was taking me, but I was glad when it got there. B+

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading

For those that loved No Country for Old Men and are excited to see what those brilliant Coen brothers have in store for us, you may need to go rent instead.

Burn After Reading is the Coen’s returning to their familiar form. Much in the way of Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen’s deliver yet another tall tale about stupid people doing stupid things.

This time we have a recently laid off CIA man (John Malkovich) whose snotty wife (Tilda Swinton) wants a divorce to be with her dimwitted lover (George Clooney). But somehow some of Malkovich’s secret CIA files are found by an over caffeinated gym worker (Brad Pitt) who shares his plot for blackmail with his BFF (Frances McDormand) and well, you get the idea.

Not to concern ourselves with plot, which lets admit, the Coen’s can get a little ahead of themselves with, lets instead focus on the performances. Brad Pitt, fresh off his miraculous performances in Babel and The Assassination of Jesse James, is a revelation. As Chad, Pitt jumps in head first, mocking his celebrity status and giving a completely balls-out performance as a moron with a plan. Chad wears his blonde hair high in the air, lip syncs to whatever is blasting on his iPod and comes up with idea after ludicrous idea.

From the first moment Pitt was onscreen, I was hysterical. He delivers every line with comic zeal, an incredible performance that could earn him a nomination.

Pitt is backed by the goofy Clooney who now completes his “idiot” trilogy with the Coen’s after O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty. McDormand (aka Mrs. Joel Coen) has a lot of fun filling Chad’s head with bad ideas. Swinton is devilishly good, using that same proper arrogance that got her in Oscar for Michael Clayton.

But if anyone can match Pitt, it’s the wacky Malkovich. This is his best work since he played himself in Being John Malkovich. Watch his first scene, as he slowly becomes more and more offended by the accusation that he has a drinking problem.

Burn After Reading is completely enjoyable, but those expecting No Country or Fargo should look elsewhere. The film may bite off a little more than it can chew and it wraps things up a little too neatly, but oh well, it’s fun. I’ll give anyone $10 if they don’t burst out laughing when they see what Clooney’s character has been making in his basement. B+

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Most of Woody Allen’s characters talk in a mad-hysteria of banter. They speak fast and furious, conversing as though they have memorized the dictionary and the thesaurus. It’s common knowledge that you either love Woody Allen or you hate him. I used to be in the latter group, but I’m starting to come around.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Allen’s new European-set film. After Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, Allen is making a wise decision to step away from his constant Manhattan setting. By getting out of the city, Allen presents wondrous landscapes of places and people that intrigue us.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends spending the rest of their summer in the sexy hills of Barcelona. They stay with Vicky’s relative (Patricia Clarkson) and soon meet a dashing artist, Juan (Javier Bardem) who invites them for a weekend away for great wine, good food and passionate love making.

Vicky, the uptight, soon to be wed to a rich, pompous Wall Street guy, is repulsed by the offer. Cristina, on the other hand, is wildly turned on. They accept Juan’s proposal and soon a whimsical love triangle develops. But it isn’t until Juan’s semi-psychotic ex-wife (an incredible Penelope Cruz) comes in, that the film really takes off.

Bardem and Cruz (who are dating in real life) engage in fantastically believable arguments that send sparks flying. Watching Cruz break Bardem down by berated him in Spanish is great, delicious fun. Bardem, in a complete 180-transformation from his No Country for Old Men role, really sinks his teeth into this juicy role of a Spanish bravado.

Like other Allen characters, most of these have no idea what they want. They pretend that they don’t care, or that they care too much, but usually, they make bad decisions and start to question everything. No one does this better than Rebecca Hall. You may remember her from The Prestige as Christian Bale’s tortured wife, but as Vicky, she is incredible. I believed her guilt, passion, desire and angst more than anyone else. I’d give her a nomination hands down.

So, if you’re an Allen fan, then check this out. If not, go rent Hannah and Her Sisters, or Annie Hall, or hell, even Match Point. A-

Righteous Kill

It’s sad to say, but putting two of the greatest actors of all time together on screen does not necessarily give you a good film. Jon Avnet’s new movie is one of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year. Not because Righteous Kill is emotionally complex, God no. It’s because about a third of the way into it, you know that names like Pacino and De Niro can’t save it.

Plot? Umm. Pacino and De Niro are 30 year partnered cops who are trying to catch a vigilante that is killing off scum in New York. If you’ve seen the preview, you know that most clues point to De Niro as the culprit. And if you see 20 minutes of the movie, you’ll know how it is going to end. But of course, the filmmakers try to deliver a grand surprise that just falls completely flat.

The last (and only other movie) these two have shared screen time together was Michael Mann’s incomparable Heat. After Righteous Kill was finished I had already forgotten most of the film, but I got to thinking: what was their last great movie.

To define “great” along Pacino and De Niro is to put the word in a whole other category. Honestly, does acting getting any better than De Niro’s Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta? How about Pacino’s Michael Corleone or Sonny from Dog Day Afternoon? I think not.

In fact, many consider Heat to be both actors’ last great performance. But there are exceptions. Take De Niro in Sleepers or even Wag the Dog, Pacino in The Insider, Insomina and Angels in America for instance. But, for the most part, neither actor has delivered anything substantial within the last decade.

Maybe it’s unfair to compare their work now from their hey-day in the ‘70s. They were young and relentless. Their older now and time has weathered them both.

Little can be said for Righteous Kill, no excuses can make up for this, but I’m still waiting for that one shock performance that sends me back to the days when "Attica!" is yelled in the streets, or the words, "You talkin' to me?" send chills down my spine. D-

Disaster Movie

From the guys that wrote the Scary Movies and directed other spoofs like Date Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans comes their take on the disaster genre.

Who cares. These movies are a complete farce that bares not a thread of substantial content. But they are cheap to make and they usually turn a profit. So, as long as they keep making a buck, we’re going to be getting more of them.

Disaster Movie is currently rated as the worst movie of all time on IMDB, enough said. This movie is simply… disastrous. F

Hamlet 2

The faux-commercials that open Hamlet 2 are equally as funny as the fake trailers before Tropic Thunder, and that is saying a lot.

Steve Coogan, that zany Brit best known as the in-over-his-head director in Tropic Thunder plays Dana Marschz, a terrible actor and even worse drama teacher at a quaint Tucson high school. Dana has dreams of creating something more substantial than the boring, unoriginal plays he conducts with his only two actors. Trying to gain the approval of a little pip-squeak journalist, Dana comes up with his most far fetched idea yet: a sequel to Hamlet.

Doesn’t everyone die in Hamlet? No problem, he has a time machine. You want to bring Jesus into the mix? No biggie, songs like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” help to add context.

Hamlet 2 may feel a little unbalanced at times, but the laughs, for the most part, are totally genuine. Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Shue (playing herself) are all consistent with their jokes. But it’s Coogan that steals the show. What we’re left with is a fast-moving, catchy-as-all-hell finale that will have you belting out, “rock me sexy Jesus.” Inappropriate or not, who cares, it’s all wicked fun. B