Monthly Archives: June 2009

Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter

Of all the characters I’ve ever been acquainted with, perhaps the most odd, eccentric, and engrossing is Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum). This mystery of a man is the subject of Charles Laughton’s mesmerizing “The Night of the Hunter.”

Who exactly is Harry Powell? He is a self-proclaimed preacher and a religious fanatic. He recites Bible quotes while explaining the battle of love vs. hate using his tattooed hands (which has become one of those things that’s so famous yet few even know what it’s from). Despite his righteous message, Powell is not so righteous himself. Powell lands himself in jail and discovers Ben Harper (Peter Graves), a man on death row for murder and stealing $10,000.
Powell uses his seemingly moral goodness to con himself into marriage with Harper’s wife (Shelley Winters). Everyone is seduced by Powell, even Harper’s two children, whose disdain for Powell grows overtime.
The film soon unfolds into a psychological thriller, as Powell reveals he is not all that he seems, but rather a very dangerous man. Like something out of 1940s film noir, money becomes the thing that drives the characters and sends the two Harper children on a wild goose chase. But, as Powell keeps claiming, it’s all in the name of God.
“The Night of the Hunter” doesn’t have a real voiceover narration, but the character Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who serves as a sort of on-screen narrator. She provides the true morality that Harry Powell lacks and fills the film with Biblical references. Most important to look out for is her reference to “the wolf in sheep’s skin.” I think you can guess who that’s about.
The film is guided by the powerhouse performance of Robert Mitchum. He controls Powell perfectly and makes him sane and insane at all the right moments, creating the false illusion of Powell as a righteous man. He has a warm singing voice that sounds something like Gene Kelly and a cold gaze that could kill a puppy. His explanation of the battle of love vs. hate is one that is worth multiple listens. Mitchum fits the character so well that I could never picture anyone else playing this role.
“The Night of the Hunter” came out in 1955. By this time, color was available to movies for 16 years. “The Night of the Hunter” could have been shot in color, but Laughton decided to stick to black and white. He did so with good reason. The black and white fits perfectly and cinematographer Stanley Cortez takes full advantage of it by creating immense, creeping shadows that add to the film’s suspense. Some of the film’s most beautiful shots are the outline of a person, shrouded in shadow, standing against an open doorway. There’s also a fine transition that literally goes between night and day, perhaps an allusion to God creating the Earth and the skies.
Obviously, the film carries a heavy religious message. At times, it can seem very anti-religious, portraying people of faith as false prophets praying off the gullible. At other times however, the film can also be very pro-religious, portraying religion as a source of morality and wisdom. However, that’s not up to “The Night of the Hunter” to decide, it’s up to the audience.
Upon its release, “The Night of the Hunter” was a failure both critically and commercially. It took years for the film to finally be appreciated as a masterpiece. Today, it has inspired filmmakers far and wide. Individual shots and snippets of dialogue from the film could be directly related to films by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, and Spike Lee (quite obviously in “Do the Right Thing”).
“The Night of the Hunter” is a little bit of Hitchockian suspense mixed with “The Maltese Falcon” and the Bible. It’s a film that was years ahead of its time and now it has finally gotten its due.
Recommended for Fans of: Psycho, No Country for Old Men, The Maltese Falcon, Do the Right Thing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Jackie Brown

Movie Review: Young Frankenstein

What is the line between utter satire and a nice homage? These two genres seem utterly different: either you’re honoring something, or making fun of something. Most filmmakers who try to do both in one movie usually fail except for one: Mel Brooks. Of all of his great satires, “Young Frankenstein” is one of Brooks’ best. It’s one of the sharpest, most brilliantl slapstick comedies he’s made.

“Young Frankenstein” could be seen as a sequel to 1931′s “Frankenstein,” but just with more laughs. However, it is really a satire of “Frankenstein” and most other horror films. In addition, it’s a throwback to the films of the “Frankenstein” era.
“Young Frankenstein” is shot in a crisp black and white that makes it look almost exactly like a film shot in the 1930s. In fact, had I not known before, I would have thought the film was actually shot in 1931 rather than 1974. Everything in the movie creates a nostalgic feel. Just looking at the obviously fake castle in the background provides a good laugh but also oddly reminded me of the mansion in “Citizen Kane.” That’s when I realized this film really was a tribute.
The story of “Young Frankenstein” takes place long after the original Dr. Frankenstein, who was the subject of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” was conducting experiments in his lab. Here, we get the story Frankenstein’s grandson, Dr. Frederich Frankenstein (Gene Wilder). Frankenstein is so ashamed of his family’s past that he insist he be called “Frankensteen” in one of the film’s most memorable lines.
Frankenstein receives a notice that he has inherited his grandfather’s castle. He heads toward the castle and encounters a beautiful woman (Cloris Leachman), and a creepy hunchman with a good heart named Igor (Marty Feldman). But more importantly, he discovers his grandfather’s old experiments, including how to bring something dead back to life. Soon, Dr. Frankenstein goes from hiding his past to stating, “It’s not Frankensteen, it’s Frankenstein!” He becomes a mad scientist, bringing a corpse back to life with disastrous results (played by “Everybody Loves Raymond”‘s Peter Boyle). If you know the old tale, you know what happens next, but you’ve never seen it quite like this.
Many of the scenes from “Young Frankenstein” are exactly like scenes from “Frankenstein,” but with a comedic twist. Many are not meant to satirize but rather to entertain. For example, the scene mocking the monster and the little girl isn’t mocking “Frankenstein,” but more getting a laugh out of something serious. One more satirical point is when the brain clearly marked “abnormal” is put inside the new being.
Without the slightest doubt, I would say the funniest scene in the movie is the rotating bookcase scene. It is a scene of slapstick brilliance that almost matches up with the stateroom scene in “A Night at the Opera” in terms of over-the-top, slapstick ridiculousness. Like the stateroom scene, it uses repeated actions as a way to get laughs (in “Opera” it’s the dinner order and in “Frankenstein” its the amount of time the shelf rotates). But it’s that amount of time that builds up and up until everything will inevitably crash that makes it so funny. I’m guessing that, like most comedians, Brooks was inspired by the Marx Brothers. If so, he did them well.
Brooks is certainly one of the best comedic directors Hollywood has ever seen. Many have tried to mock cinema, but fail miserably (I’m talking to you, Seltzer/Friedberg). “Young Frankenstein” does to the horror genre what “Spaceballs” did to the sci-fi genre, what “The Producers” to the musical genre, and what “Blazing Saddles” to the western genre. Like “Blazing Saddles” and “History of the World,” “Young Frankenstein” is much more than mere satire–it is a tribute to filmmaking as a whole just as “History of the World” was not just a satirization of historical events, but of religion and musicals and that “Blazing Saddles” was not just satirizing westerns, but also the ridiculousness that goes behind racial tensions.
The film was written by both Brooks and Wilder. The writing is always superb, but it is often the visual humor that gets the best laughs such as the aforementioned book case scene and another scene with a blind man (played by an unrecognizable Gene Hackman). Surprisingly, the film’s humor is not as dirty as many other of Brooks’ productions and that helps make it seem even more like a film that could belong in the golden days of Hollywood.
Wilder serves great as one of the film’s writers, but all credit should go to his fantastic performance. He makes the descent into madness hilarious and masters the art of weirdness mixed with an air of superiority (also see: “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”). The Academy rarely gives serious thought to nominating comedic performances but if they did, this one would have been a shoo-in.
“Young Frankenstein” somehow manages to go deeper than “Frankenstein.” In fact, “Frankenstein” totally stripped the Enlightenment philosophy that the book contained. “Young Frankenstein” at least acknowledges it, and even tries to put its own message in about the debate of nature vs. nurture and the writings of John Locke. I know, this sounds too deep for a comedy to go. But comedy can go this deep, and be this intellectual. It depends on the right filmmaker, the right writing, and the right actors. In this case, “Young Frankenstein” has it all.
Recommended for Fans of: Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, History of the World: Part 1, Spaceballs, A Night at the Opera, Duck Soup, King Kong (1933), Tropic Thunder

TV Review: Mad Men

Mad Men: A term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it.

And here with this very term, “Mad Men” begins. With this very definition, you are about to descend into a new, unimaginable world.
The first shot of “Mad Men” looks like a shot taken right out of “Goodfellas.” It is of a crowded, smoke-filled Manhattan bar in the early 1960s. Era classics play in the background. Slowly, the camera pans to the back of a man’s head. The man sits diligently writing notes. He wears a fancy gray business suit, his hair is slicked back, he smokes a cigarette.
These are minor details one doesn’t necessarily need to know. But this is “Mad Men” and in “Mad Men,” every minor detail counts whether that be a person’s attitude or a man’s tie.
The man being described above is at first shrouded in mystery. He is Don Draper. Draper, played by Jon Hamm, is an ad man, working for the successful Sterling Cooper advertising agency. He can sell products no man you’ll ever see can. In his graceful speeches, he has the ability to turn mere objects into reflections of life, moving people through his words by convincing them that something as stupid as a type of lipstick is the second coming. Basically, he’s a whiter version of Barack Obama.
Although Don is the show’s front and center, “Mad Men” is not merely about him. Instead, the show uses him as a reflection of the change in American culture in the early 1960s. But creator Matthew Weiner uses the world beyond Don as well.
“Mad Men” paints two portraits of the 1960s: office life and suburban life. In the office, Don is surrounded by a multitude of strange and fascinating co-workers. Some include his boss Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who is more or less another version of Don’s chain smoking, womanizing self, Don’s secretary Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), who at first seems like a pre-feminist stereotype, but is truly bursting with energy, and accountant Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a WASP who is trying to chose his own path even though his path has already been carved from the beginning.  
Moving on from cubicle life, “Mad Men” explores the dawn of American suburbia. The difference between New York City and suburban home for Don is like night and day. In the city, he’s an unfaithful, partying womanizer. In the suburbs, he is a loyal husband with a typical white picket fence home as well as a wife and two children. His wife, Betty (January Jones), seems like a normal housewife, cooking and cleaning while carpooling for her kids all day long. But she is much more than that. As the show progresses, she yearns to break free from her dull life.
“Mad Men” is about a significant moment in American culture. It balances so many different emotions and yet never manages to be too extreme. At times, it’s dramatic but never over them top. It can be sad but never corny. It’s often sweet but never sappy. The costumes, set design, music, and cinematography so amazingly show off every little detail of the era with stunning perfection, yet, the show is never style over substance. In fact, the substance often lies within the show’s style. 
 The little details, such as a smoky room or an old time automobile, fully engulf the show into the era. Further dragging the audience into the 1960s are all of the pop culture references. One gets to watch how events such as JFK’s election and Marilyn Monroe’s death effected people.
Beyond the sets, costumes, and memorabilia, “Mad Men” boasts one of the best ensembles currently on television. Jones, Slattery, and Christina Hendricks give fine supporting performances but none can match the performance of Jon Hamm as Don Draper. I know I often say that an actor becomes the character, but here, Hamm really does become Draper. Even though Draper is so unfaithful, we often feel sympathy for him. Hamm shows that even though he does horrible things, he’s still a human with a beating heart who still loves his kids andwants to make his family happy. And that, is the essence of great acting.
As mentioned previously, “Mad Men” is a look at two sides of life in the 60s: city and suburban. Perhaps the suburban side is the more interesting side. This is a place where “Mad Men” succeeds where many have failed: to offer a nightmarish, yet realistic view of suburbia. Maybe it’s the for the reason that “Mad Men” is a TV show and can therefore go into much more depth on the issue. While “Revolutionary Road” only had two hours, “Mad Men” has two seasons. The essential question in “Mad Men” isn’t so much about escaping a troubled marriage, but rather trying to make it work. Furthermore, how do you know when your marriage is troubled? And can you fix it, or was it never meant to be?
“Mad Men” is everything you could ask for in a TV show and more. It’s about a generation long ago that isn’t too different from our own. It embraces the spirit of consumerism yet spits in its face at the same time. So indulge, in the most audacious drama your television set currently has to offer. Brought to you by Lucky Strike 

Breaking News: Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett Die

Reporting deaths is probably the hardest part of being a journalist.

But today, after a long battle with cancer, actress Farrah Fawcett died. The sex symbol and Emmy nominated actress of “Charlie’s Angels” was 62.
Then later today, shocking news came in that Michael Jackson was brought into the hospital suffering from cardiac arrest. Doctors tried to revive him but he lost all pulse. The King of Pop died today at the age of 50. More details about his death will come soon.
A large portion of my teenage years were shaped by monologue jokes about Jackson’s skin color change, plastic surgeries, and molestation charges. Throughout those years, he was something of a joke, known as the child molester who went from black to white. However, we cannot forget the real reason Jackson became a star: he was the King of Pop. If you think about music in the 1980s, the first name that usually comes to mind is Michael Jackson.
Today, Hollywood lost two of its greatest stars. Music, movies, and television won’t be the same. My condolences go out to the friends and family of both Jackson and Fawcett.
To view Michael Jackson’s greatest claim to fame (still great after 27 years) click here

Movie Review: The Last Detail

Hal Ashby. That’s a name you’ve maybe never heard, but it’s one you really need to remember. He was a prominent director of the 70s who sadly died in 1988 before hitting the age of 60. Among his many great films is 1973′s “The Last Detail.”

“The Last Detail” can be defined as many things. It’s a dark comedy. It’s a coming of age story. But mainly, it’s a road trip film.
The film begins at a naval base. 18-year-old sailor Larry (Randy Quaid) has been sentenced to eight years in a military prison for a minor crime. Officers Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned to transport the young sailor to a military prison in Portsmouth. But rather than go straight there, Buddusky decides instead to show Larry a good time before his prison sentence begins. They take trips all throughout the Northeast and engage in some serious boozing, fighting, and sex.
One could argue that “The Last Detail” is really about the things that define manliness. For example, Buddusky thinks that Larry must prove himself by punching him. He rejects, of course. The movie isn’t necessarily saying Larry is any less of a man for not punching Buddusky, instead it questions society’s very idea of what constitutes masculinity.
This movie was made when Jack Nicholson was at the height of his career. “Easy Rider” debuted three years earlier, and “Chinatown” would premiere the following year. He gives a performance in “The Last Detail” that is nothing short of typical Jack. This is not a bad thing, because just watching Jack be Jack is probably one of the greatest pleasures the cinema can offer. His constantly sarcastic attitude is often punctuated by moments of pure, real emotion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s final minutes.
Also giving a memorable performance is a very young Randy Quaid. He received the only Oscar nomination of his career for this film, and a very well deserved nomination it was. The role of Larry is a tough character to play. Despite the fact that he’s heading to jail, Larry barely fits the standard of criminal. Besides stealing a few small items, he feels more timid than sinister. And because of Quaid’s performance, we look past his flaws and see his better characteristics. Ironically, his transporters seem more fit for jail than he does.
Now, back to Hal Ashby. Ashby is perhaps best known for his 1971 masterpiece, “Harold and Maude,” which bares many similarities to “The Last Detail.” No, nobody dates an 80-year-old woman in this movie. But like “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail” follows the formation of unlikely friendships and romances over incredibly small periods of time. During just a few short days, characters mature rapidly and basically live their lives for the very first time. Larry is the Harold of “The Last Detail,” as he learns from his new mentors (this film’s Maude) what it really means to live. And that’s the spirit of an Ashby film, people learning how to get through life.
“The Last Detail” is about people. Very strange people. However, they’re not so strange when compared to the people around them. On their long trip, the trio runs into gun-toting rednecks, Nixon-hating hippies, and worshippers. The film is really about exploring what makes every character so strange, yet so special. It feels like quite an inspiration for many major modern films, especially the recent “Away We Go.”
The fact that a concept so small could inspire so many films shows the legacy of Ashby remains strong. “The Last Detail” proves his legacy: all you need is a good, original idea and some interesting characters to make a movie great.
Recommended for Fans of: Harold and Maude, Away We Go, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Easy Rider, Rushmore, Dazed and Confused

Tim Burton Gets His Hands on Alice in Wonderland

A few days ago, I wrote a review of the wonderful gem of a TV show called “Pushing Daisies.” I remarked how the show had the distinct feeling of a Tim Burton movie. Now, Burton’s first project since “Sweeney Todd” has been announced: his own version of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Usually, I would groan at the idea of a remake, but in the hands of Burton it will be more like a re-imagining than a remake.
Why do I have so much faith? Burton’s record as a filmmaker, mainly. He recently made his own version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” While it came nowhere near the 1971 classic and no one can touch Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, Burton’s new dark twist on the old tale was somewhat moving and well worth viewing.
Like “Charlie,” “Alice in Wonderland” is a fairy tale with very dark undertones (many which have apparently been turning up on “Lost” throughout the years). And who better to find something dark in something light than Burton?
The cast looks fantastic. Alice will be played by unkwown Mia Wasikowski. Burton will once again work with Johnny Depp, who will play the Mad Hatter. Some of Burton’s other collaborations with Depp include “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.” The rest of the cast includes Anne Hathaway (White Queen), Burton’s wife Helena Boham Carter (Red Queen), Alan Rickman (The Caterpillar), and Christopher Lee (The Jabberwock).
According to IMDB, the film is slated to be released on March 5, 2010. How do you feel about this? Will this be something special, or just another remake? Me, I’m already counting down the days.

TV Review: Pushing Daisies

Pushing daisies is usually the euphemism used to describe someone who is dead. However, “Pushing Daisies” is not dead, it is budding with life.

Refreshing is barely the best word to describe “Pushing Daisies.” As I said before, “Pushing Daisies” is budding with life, creativity, and a ton of imagination to go around. It is one of the finest TV shows made in years.
“Pushing Daisies” can claim to be a part of many genres. It is mainly a comedy filled with murder mysteries, suspense, and moving romance. It’s a classic Hollywood film wrapped into hour-long installments.
“Pushing Daisies” is centered around the life of Ned (Lee Pace). As a child, he realized he had an extraordinary gift-he could bring dead things back to life. The rules are simple: touch a dead thing once; life. Touch it again; death. Keep a dead thing alive for more than a minute, then something else in proximity has to die. Ned realizes this after reviving his dog, and his mother, only to tragically bring her back to death.
Despite this strange gift, years later, Ned is just an ordinary guy. Holding onto the last memory of his mother, Ned opens a pie restaurant to show off his other hidden talent: pie making. From time to time, Ned aides a private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) in solving murdering mysteries by bringing victims back to life. One such case involves Ned’s childhood sweatheart, Charlotte “Chuck” Charles (Anna Friel). Deciding he loves her too much, Ned decides to keep her alive for more than a minute. This is much to the chagrin of Olive (Kristin Chenoweth), the pie restaurant co-worker who is absolutely smitten with Ned.
Each episode has a similar format: Normal day, murder mystery, Ned brings body back to life, Ned finds out information, the gang gets themselves trapped in an elaborate conspiracy, they solve it and life is back to normal. Many shows run dry because their premise gets tired, and by this vague description, it might sound like the premise of “Pushing Daisies” would get old after a while. It doesn’t, because each episode the mystery is brand new. Not one murder mystery is ever in any way similar to another.
One could not discuss this show without the word “imagination” constantly popping up. That’s for a good reason. It’s because “Pushing Daisies” has an imagination that most shows today lack. The kind of willingness to put anything on the screen and see what works. In the end, it pretty much all works.
Each episodes is directed like a Tim Burton movie, especially “Edward Scissorhands.” Like a Burton movie, each screen is filled with vividly bright colors serving as an obvious contrast to what should be a very dark mood with even darker themes. In this case, the vivid colors are the bright, yellow daisies stretching in the fields farther than the eye can see.
Each mystery plot is brilliant and could even deserve their own, feature-length films. Like in a “Simpsons” episode, each plot begins very small. Suddenly, one event effects another and a chain of dominos fall to lead to some sort of conspiracy or some sort of all-too-obvious end. Many times, the surprise lies in the fact that the perpetrator seems so obvious that we feel stupid for not predicting it. Other times, more than one person seems guilty and it is almost impossible to guess what will happen next.
At that point, the plot totally has you under its spell. You can no longer predict, it unfolds itself for you. It asks you to open your imagination, yet let it guide you with its own.
Among the chaotic mysteries, the show is first and foremost a comedy. The show gets it biggest laughs mainly from Chenoweth, whose stereotypically dumb blonde attitude somehow increases the likability of her character. Equally hilarious are the wise cracks of McBride.
But maybe what’s so funny all and all is the concept behind the show itself, the idea of someone being able to live the dream of bringing anything back to life, but then having to kill it again after one minute. Funnier also are the many ways Ned uses the gift to his advantage. One such instance will remind you of “E.T.”
Among the comedy and mystery, “Pushing Daisies” also contains some romance. The biggest romance is between Ned and Chuck. They live together, and though it seems like everything should be perfect, but Ned cannot touch Chuck or she will have to die again. And this time, she her death would be permanent. It is those times, seeing Ned and Chuck close together yet so isolated, then at other times figuring out how to touch without actually touching, that are among the show’s most moving moments. It can bring a tear of joy, when they can come closer together, followed by a tear of sadness when you realize they just might not be able to make their relationship work.
It is a chilling aspect of “Pushing Daisies,” to realize that since Ned can neither touch his love nor his dog, he has little solace during tragedy. It adds on to a sort of disconnect with human beings he’s had throughout his entire life.
After two seasons “Pushing Daisies” was cancelled, ending it’s run just one week ago. Many said it was the Writers’ Strike that killed it. Wrong. It was its brilliance that killed it. “Pushing Daisies” was a bright flower just too bright for anyone to understand. It has the right to go up with “Arrested Development” and “Freaks and Geeks” as another great, misunderstood classic cancelled before its time. But hopefully, it will live on forever in the coveted hall of DVD cult fame. I don’t hope it will, I know it will.

The Triumphant Return of Triumph

Last night, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog made his debut on “The Tonight Show” with a video of his visit to Bonnaroo. It’s not quite in line with Triumph’s visit to the Star Wars premiere and Quebec, but it was still no doubt hilarious and even somewhat risqué for the 11:35 time slot that Carson and Leno once inhabited. Keep your ears open for a joke about Scooby Doo. Here is the video (in two parts) below: