Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Short Takes: Shadow of a Doubt, Fruitvale Station, and More

Shadow of a Doubt (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

In terms of Hitchcock's oeuvre, Shadow of a Doubt is not remembered as one of the best, if it's even remembered at all (film scholars seem to like it more than casual fans). But the film deserves to be seen, since it's a taut thriller with a killer (I'm sorry) hook. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) adores her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), not just because she's named after him but because she believes him to be the most outstanding representative of humanity. However, Uncle Charlie may not be so great: in fact, she discovers, he may be the Merry Widower, a serial killer who murders wealthy widows and steals their riches. The film doesn't have much in the way of suspense around whether this is true: it's obvious from the first frame Uncle Charlie occupies that he's your killer. But the film does get a lot of mileage out of Charlie learning the truth about her uncle, then dodging his attempts to silence her permanently. Working from a script co-written by none other than Thornton Wilder (Our Town, the play you no doubt read at some point in grade school), Hitchcock works his usual magic as a director, and Cotten is appropriately chilling as he let's the cracks in his facade show. However, it just never lifts itself to be considered among the director's very best films. (Best Shot hereB+

Heavenly Creatures (dir. Peter Jackson, 1994)

Leave it to Peter Jackson to turn what could have been a standard true-crime/exploitation film into a imaginative, brilliant study of two young girls in a passionate more-than-friendship. Based on a true event from 1950s New Zealand, the story involves Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynsky, in her film debut), an angsty loner who becomes fast friends with new British student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet, also making her debut). The girls develop there own fantasy world, Borovnia, where they are free to create the world they wish to live in. As their friendship blossoms into something more, their parents become concerned (homosexuality being a major taboo at the time), and the girls plot to murder Pauline's mother. Though it could have easily sank into B-movie territory, Jackson handles the central relationship deftly, treating both girls with dignity and their relationship as something normal and not sinister. The Borovnia show his flair with creating fantasy worlds (which, of course, would be evident on a much larger scale in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), and inventiveness in direction. Most impressive, though, are the two leads: both actresses are nothing short of astonishing, and seem to arrive as fully-developed talents that their later careers would demonstrate. A

Rock of Ages (dir. Adam Shankman, 2012)

There's a moment about halfway through the film where Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) croons a verse of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" to Rolling Stone reporter Constance Stack's (Malin Ackerman) nearly-bare ass. That image pretty much sums up the entire tone of the film. Rock of Ages wants to have it both ways, being complete sincere while also being naughty and hedonistic, not unlike the '80s hair-metal songs the characters break into. And also not unlike those songs, it's never as good as it thinks it is. Based on the hit Broadway show, the film chronicles life at the Bourbon Room, a hot Sunset Strip nightclub where rock 'n' roll reigns supreme. With the exception of Cruise, who fully embodies his rock-star persona, almost everyone is miscast, from Catherine Zeta-Jones as an anti-rock crusader to Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the club owners. Most damaging, though, are the leads; Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are fatally dull, with no chemistry...with just about anyone, most notably the camera. The film soars when it puts together numbers like Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," but those moments come way too few and far between. C-

Fruitvale Station (dir. Steve Coogler, 2013)

Fruitvale Station has remarkable timing: based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old single father who, on New Year's Eve 2008, was fatally shot by a transit officer at the titular railway station in Oakland, California, the film premiered this past summer just as George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. That timing made what was already designed as an "Important Picture" even more relevant: racism is still simmering within our society, and an overt expression of that is the high number of deaths of unarmed, young black men by law enforcement or those claiming "self-defense." The message desperately needs to be heard. The film, though, is a flawed-but-well-meaning portrait of a man felled too soon. First-time feature director Steve Coogler (who also wrote the screenplay) shows us Oscar (Michael B. Jordan, best known for TV's The Wire and Friday Night Lights) on the final day of his life, as he tries to get his life on the right track. Jordan gives a star-making performance; given his age and previous experience (plus a crowded field), he likely won't be nominated for a Best Actor nomination, but he's more than deserving of one. Meloine Diaz finds shades in the otherwise-dull "supporting girlfriend" role that make her Sophia intriguing, and Octavia Spencer - as Oscar's mother - gets a gut-wrenching scene in a flashback involving visiting Oscar in prison. Though Oscar is perhaps presented as a little too saintly to be believably human on paper, Jordan imbues him with nothing but vital humanity, and though we know how this story ends, the final act is no less shocking or heartbreaking. It's not a perfect movie, but it definitely is an important one. B+

Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine, 2013)

"Spring break forever, bitches!" With that mission statement, Harmony Korine's latest tale of nihilistic debauchery delves into the sunny beaches of Florida, where every year tons of college-age individuals descend upon the shores for non-stop drinking, partying, and sex. Faith (Selena Gomez) joins her rowdier friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) on spring break after the latter three rob a local restaurant for money. After landing in jail, they're bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a gangster/drug dealer/rapper who takes a special interest in them. From there, things descend into the kind of beautifully-shot moral depravity that only Korine can make. The entire film is splashed in Day-Glo colors, resulting in some arresting images while unbelievable acts occur on screen. In many ways, the film is equivalent to any given episode of American Horror Story: if you give it a single thought, it all falls apart, but in the moment it's so gloriously bonkers it's narrative flaws are forgiven. Two highlights: Franco's wacked-out performance and a perfectly madcap scene scored to Britney Spears' "Everytime." It's the kind of simultaneously amazing/terrible/batshit film that has to be seen to be believed. (Best Shot coming 9/4) A+/B-/F all at once

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (dir. George Roy Hill, 1969)

A buddy comedy dressed up as a Western, the film follows the (mostly) true exploits of the eponymous outlaws (played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively) as they flee the United States for Bolivia. The two leads have impeccable chemistry, and many of their sarcastic one-liners land perfectly. The film does reach for some tonal changes, namely whenever there's an act of extreme violence: those shifts can sometimes be jarring, particularly when they come abruptly. But most of the film is easy-going fun, and manages to pay homage to the classic Westerns of old Hollywood (namely in the astounding cinematography, courtesy Conrad L. Hall) while subverting those same films in exciting ways. Plus, Newman and Redford together is obviously never a bad thing. And you're probably already humming "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." (Best Shot here) A-

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