Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What I'm Watching

Though I assume many working critics do, I've never personally kept a list of the films I watch. The FILM COMMENT column about "The Last 10 Films I Saw" always bewilders me: how do they know? do they keep a list? do they just make this stuff up? But it occurs to me now that the information might be useful to me at a later date, as when compiling year's best lists and such, but. I am also tempted to make this resolve because it is the time of year to make resolutions and, frankly, because I need the discipline.

In the time I've become more casual -- indeed, lax -- about this blog, the muscle I formerly used to maintain it has grown flabby and it has begun to affect my approach to writing adversely in other ways. I think it's necessary to embrace a minor commitment like this, if only to make it that much easier to embrace more significant writing commitments. The muscle needs to be ready and prepared. So I'll not only list the films but add some comments about them as well.

I caught a bug over the holidays and am still recovering. Yesterday I didn't feel like doing much other than watching movies, so I actually watched five.

CEREMONY: The first feature written and directed by Max Winkler, the son of actor Henry Winkler, this is a moderately surprising retread of one of the perennial chick flick situations: a former boyfriend crashes the wedding of the girl he never forgot, determined to win her back. In this case, the bride is the formidable Uma Thurman, both taller and older than leading man Michael Angarano. Character is usually the saving grace of such films, and this has some memorable ones and some clever dialogue, but mostly it has the courage to go somewhere other than where the genre has taught us to expect. I liked supporting actress Brooke Bloom particularly, and was impressed by the taste of whoever selected the source music. Viewed randomly on cable.

ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS: Abbott & Costello's first feature casts them under their real names as amiable wise guys serving as backup to reformed gangster William Frawley. Their routines seem a bit forceably shoe-horned into a story derived from LOVE INSURANCE, one of the rare non-Charlie Chan novels written by Ohio native Earl Derr Biggers. Top-billed Allan Jones and Nancy Kelly sing, none too memorably, and THE MUMMY'S HAND's Peggy Moran has a number too, which shows singing to be not particularly her forté. Kept daydreaming throughout about how Scorsese might have worked with Costello, given the chance, because he seemed to me like a more docile Joe Pesci in this. Was surprised to discover that the "Sir Walter Raleigh" coat-over-the-puddle gag from A HARD DAY'S NIGHT was stolen from here. Viewed on Universal DVD.

BUCK PRIVATES: Abbott & Costello were the best-reviewed aspect of ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS, so they top-lined their second feature and first real movie vehicle. They play two sidewalk tie-selling hustlers who are chased by street cop Nat Pendelton into a movie theater that's doubling as a recruitment center, ushering them into the Army. A much better movie than their first, given additional zest by the Andrews Sisters (who melodicize their way through several numbers, including their signature tune "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy") and some impressively rubber-legged boogie-woogie dancers. Making the Army look like Heaven on earth, with free cigarettes and doughnuts and pretty WACs offering their phone numbers, this became Universal's biggest money-maker to date, which explains why some of its gags were subsequently quoted in Warner Bros. cartoons like "To Duck Or Not To Duck," which reprised some of the boxing gags. Viewed on Universal DVD.

THE SEARCH FOR BRIDEY MURPHY: I've long wanted to see this supposedly influential Paramount release, based on a best-selling real life account of a hypnotist who successfully regressed a friend's wife to a past life in Ireland. Louis Heyward hosts the film in the manner of a TV or radio show, but as the hypnotist rather than himself, walking from a bare set area onto a furnished set to answer a ringing phone that propels the plot into motion. SHADOW OF A DOUBT's Teresa Wright, deliberately muted and deprived of closeups in her early scenes, becomes the unexpected center of attention as the sessions begin. THE THING'S Kenneth Tobey plays her husband. Scripted and directed by Noel Langley (one of the screenwriters of THE WIZARD OF OZ), this is an intriguing experiment in docudrama filmmaking, and one of the earliest screen investigations into untapped areas of the mind; it's most significant success is that it manages to hold one's interest without action, relying almost entirely on Q&A dialogue derived from the original recordings. Viewed on Netflix.

LIMITLESS: I'd not heard of this one before, but I found the premise hard to resist: a blocked writer uses an experimental drug that makes the brain's entire capacity available to the user, allowing him to write a first novel in only four days before sending him off in constant search of newer, more challenging, eventually deadlier frontiers. Bradley Cooper makes a believable protagonist and Robert DeNiro lends third act gravitas as a business tycoon who elicits Cooper's aid in facilitating a corporate merger that would make him a man of unparalleled power and influence. Teeming with interesting, well-cast secondary characters and unexpected snaring incident, it's also refreshing in that it remains true to what's conceptually exhilarating about the drug, teasing the possibility of a dark outcome without finally submitting to it. Directed by Neil Burger, whose THE ILLUSIONIST I admired. Watching this, I was reminded at times of such disparate films as BRAINSTORM, STRANGE DAYS and OLDBOY. Worth seeing. Viewed on Netflix.


  1. Anonymous4:38 AM

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  2. Anonymous4:40 AM

    Great initiative, I'll look forward to this. I'm a fan of random viewings, the more mixed the better. So seeing you comment on anything you watch, yet from a cinefile point of view, is very promising!

  3. dave starry5:20 PM

    Great to see you blogging regularly again. I'll make sure to check in often to read your comments.

  4. Chris Baker4:28 PM

    Always interested in reading your film reviews so this is welcome news. Happy New Year!


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