Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Short Takes: Dead Ringers, Mary Poppins, and More

Dead Ringers (dir. David Cronenberg, 1988)

To many, Cronenberg is best remembered for his early body horror days, when films such as Scanners and The Fly showed a deep interest in the grotesque. Dead Ringers may not be among his most well-known films, but it is certainly among his best. Loosely based on a real incident, twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantel (both played by Jeremy Irons) have a powerful attachment to each other, a relationship that becomes threatened when Bev falls in love with an actress with a trifurcated womb (Genevieve Bujold) and both begin to spiral out of control. Irons delivers what may be the greatest performance of his career as the twins, making each of them distinct enough but not so much as to constantly distinguish them. More interestingly, this is one of Cronenberg's most psychologically perverse films, as he cuts back on the physical horror and let's the audience descend into psychosexual madness with the twins. The film looks gorgeous to boot. (Best Shot hereB+

Mary Poppins (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1964)

Disney's live-action films have never reached the kind of acclaim that their animated films have, and to good reason: most of them just aren't very good, and very few have aged well. The brilliant exception to this, however, is Mary Poppins. Based on British author P.L. Travers' books, the film chronicles a magical nanny (Julie Andrews) who, with the help of friends like Bert (Dick Van Dyke), mends the broken bonds of the Banks family in pre-WWI London. The performances - from Andrews' Oscar-winner to Van Dyke's Oscar-snubbed to Michael Tomlinson's underrated turn as Mr. Banks - are top-notch. The music - I'm sure most of you can at least hum a few bars of "Feed the Birds," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Jolly Holiday," "Step in Time," or just about every other song in the film - is timelessly classic. Stevenson was Disney's in-house live-action director for many years; this still stands as the towering accomplishment of his career. Like its protagonist, the film is practically perfect in every way. (Best Shot here) A+

Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984)

Since the film's release, Lynch has publicly disowned Dune, a project he was hired by Universal Pictures to make in order to capitalize on his talent after The Elephant Man, as well as on the sci-fi craze that Star Wars had kicked off seven years earlier. Adapting Frank Herbert's classic - and widely considered un-filmable - novel of the same name, the film features a convoluted plot that involves warring races, government conspiracy, a mystical substance known as the Spice, and sand worms. Lynch - who worked on the script as well - heavily relies on voiceover to convey everything that's going on, which is burdensome. However, there are a number of Lynchian touches to the film, and his sensibilities do ultimately fit well with the insanity onscreen. What's even more fun: a who's-who of up-and-comers in the cast, including Kyle MacLachlan, Virginia Madsen, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, and Sting. B-

Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)

It ultimately makes sense that a film with as messy a history as Margaret would turn out to be a mess itself. Filming was completed in 2005 of Lonergan's follow-up to You Can Count on Me, but spent the next six years in post-production as he fought Fox Searchlight for a final cut. The film follows a young girl, Lisa (Anna Paquin), who accidentally causes a bus accident when she distracts the driver (Mark Ruffalo). Lisa, too, is a messy character; like every teenager who's ever lived, she's stubborn, self-righteous, and exceedingly selfish. This makes her a difficult character to like - especially given the film's two-and-a-half hour running time - but it's also what makes the film so compelling, and Paquin does a terrific job at making us understand her without necessarily liking her. It's by no means a perfect film, but as an ambitious character study, it succeeds much more than it fails. B+

Downfall (dir. Oliver Hirschbeigel, 2004)

The film's central conceit: using the memoirs of Traudl Junge (portrayed by Alexandra Maria Lara), the last days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) are portrayed as he loses the war, his power, and ultimately his life at his own hands. What emerged was a number of think-pieces and arguments over whether the film creates sympathy for Hitler, and whether he should ever be portrayed as anything other than a monster incapable of anything remotely human. Much of the controversy stems from Ganz's powerful performance; he finds the humanity in history's greatest villain, and it forces us to confront this figure as a man who committed unspeakable evil, yet nonetheless a man. Hirschbeigel's film is a tour de force of the collapse of the German war effort in WWII, evaluating what had gone wrong and how everything was destined to fail. It's a visit to a very controversial part of German history (especially in Germany), but it's a film that demands to be seen. A-

Lenny (dir. Bob Fosse, 1974)

Though he never seems to make the list of film-school-anointed Great Directors of the 1970s, Fosse - a choreographer-turned-filmmaker - created some of the decade's best films, including Cabaret and All That Jazz. The one that time has curiously forgotten is Lenny, his biopic of influential counterculture comedian Lenny Bruce. Dustin Hoffman stars as Bruce, delivering a fantastic and spot-on performance that captures the loose-cannon energy and anti-hypocrisy attitude that informed most of Bruce's routines. Though Hoffman was rightly Oscar-nominated for his role, it's Valarie Perrine, as his stripper wife Honey, who really steals this show. She captures the heartbreak of being in love with someone as volatile and unstable as Bruce was, and she absolutely owns every scene she's in. It's amazing that she didn't win the Oscar that year, but then again, that was one of the greatest Best Actress categories ever. Fosse's decision to shoot the entire thing in black-and-white is a terrific stylistic choice, but his work with the actors is what makes the film an unheralded classic of the decade. A

Rushmore (dir. Wes Anderson, 1998)

Bottle Rocket may have been Anderson's first film, but it was this tale of a prep school student (Jason Schwartzmann, in his acting debut) who gets kicked out and has to attend public school that first captured the attention of film buffs. As Max Fischer, Schwartzmann delivers a delightfully headstrong performance, and possesses the nerdy confidence that he would bring to later roles. Olivia Williams appears as the young teacher at Rushmore Academy that he develops an unhealthy crush on, and Bill Murray - in the first of what would be many regular appearances in Anderson's films - is an absolute delight as the adult confidant who ultimately fails Max's expectations. Anderson gets a lot of flack for his films' diorama-like framing and tweeness, but beneath them all lies a melancholy that makes it all relatable. Here, it's Max's disappointment in the adults around him, and the realization that one day, he will become one of them. Rushmore deserves to be discussed as one of Anderson's best. B+

The Machinist (dir. Brad Anderson, 2004)

An homage to the kinds of psychological thrillers Alfred Hitchcock made during the latter half of his career, The Machinist is perhaps most famous for star Christian Bale's drastic (and certainly unhealthy) weight loss in preparation for the role. Bale plays Trevor Reznik, a factory worker who hasn't slept in over a year, who's mental state is quickly falling apart. Though the film takes a number of plot twists and features a few genuinely creepy visuals (particularly involving Bale's warped physique), it never manages to rise above Hitchcock-lite, and often feels more like a better-than-average knockoff of Memento, which had premiered four years earlier. Anderson has had a hit-or-miss career in film (he's faired better in television), but this stands as a solid effort that proves memorable, but not in the way it wants to be. B

The Bourne Legacy (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012)

There really wasn't any reason to continue the Bourne films, especially considering that original star Matt Damon chose not to participate, other than writer/director Gilroy wanted to return to the franchise after scoring an Oscar-winning film in Michael Clayton and a passable dud in Duplicity. However, despite never really justifying it's existence as a Bourne film, Legacy turns out to be a entertaining action flick. Jeremy Renner stars as Aaron Cross, another operative in the Treadstone operation that Bourne was a part of, who has to outrun an American government that wants to eliminate anyone connected to the program. There's some silly mumbo-jumbo about virals and drugs that enhance Cross' physique and intelligence, but when the film isn't in exposition mode (which isn't all that often), it's in chase mode, and what an exciting chase it is. Gilroy certainly knows how to stage an action sequence, and he manages the government conspiracy angle well too, though it doesn't hurt to have actors such as Edward Norton, Albert Finney, and Corey Stoll working in that area in roles that could've easily gone to Central Casting. It may not make much sense in the end - especially in terms of the franchise - but it's one hell of a joy ride. B+

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