The Lusty Men (1952)

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“In any case, this film isn’t a Western. It’s really about people who want nothing more than a home of their own. That was actually the great American dream at the time, and in all the statistical questionnaires that ask what Americans aim for, 90% always gave the answer: ‘Owning a home of my own.’ And that’s what the film’s about.” – Nicholas Ray   Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is an aging champion rodeo rider who, after one too many falls from an angry horse, finds himself limping back to his dilapidated childhood home. After sharing some pat cowboy wisdom with the current owner, Jeremiah Watrus (Burt Watrus), he meets Louise and Wes Merritt (Susan Hayward and Arthur Kennedy, respectively), there to take another look at the home. They’re ranchers, saving up for a place of their own, and have had their eye on the Watrus place for some time. Wes harbors some bronc ridin’ dreams of his own, and soon he not only wants Jeff’s childhood home, but Jeff’s friendship, mentorship, and former career. Meanwhile, Jeff is pretty sure he wants Wes’ wife. It may seem like a standard melodramatic love triangle, but beyond their attractions, desires, comforts and dreams, there’s one other thing that links these three people together: they’re children of the Depression, all still with one foot in the past, the memories of growing up poor and rootless families in a disjointed America always playing in their minds, even when they don’t say anything — and … Continue reading

Autómata (2014)

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Automata ★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Gabe Ibáñez Millennium Entertainment (Official Site) 110 Minutes In Theaters October 10, 2014 (Limited) – It’s the year 2044, and thanks to a series of devastating solar storms, the world’s population has been slashed to only 22 million, most of whom are confined to the sunbaked shell of a former metropolis. Forced to rely on 1990s-era technology for their communication systems, society has nonetheless benefitted from the creation of a series of robots, the Autómata Pilgrim 7000, meant to serve and protect humans. Produced by the ROC Corporation, these robots are programmed with two strict protocols: they cannot harm any living being, and they are unable to alter themselves or other robots. Jacq Vaucan (Antonio Banderas), one of ROC Corp’s insurance investigators, is too burned out on his job to realize there is a problem with the Autómata, even as he checks out a claim filed after a robot kills a family’s loyal little dog. But soon he’s in a laboratory looking at a second Autómata, one shot by a police officer (Dylan McDermott) who swears he saw the robot repairing itself. All the scientists chuckle, sure the officer was either mistaken or high, but finally Jacq gets it through his world-weary head: something has gone very wrong. Autómata, the science fiction thriller from Gabe Ibáñez, is a striking film that boasts impressive visuals and special effects. It’s also a film that has the good sense to acknowledge the inevitable Blade Runner (1982) comparisons almost … Continue reading

The Two Faces of January (2014)

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The Two Faces of January ★★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Hossein Amini Magnolia Pictures (Official Site) 96 Minutes In Theaters September 26, 2014 (Limited) – Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is a young American ex-pat in Greece, a part-time tour guide and full-time grifter who finds himself intrigued by a couple vacationing on the island. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) notices Rydal’s stares, and his plucky young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) makes an introduction; soon, the trio are holidaying together, Chester impressed with Rydal’s ingenuity while Rydal, somewhat despite himself, sees Chester as a father figure. Signs of intergenerational conflict and Rydel’s rather indulgent Oedipal complex show almost immediately, but there is no polite sidestepping of these issues for the trio: Chester finds himself in deep trouble and Rydel is enlisted to help, propelled by vague notions of heroism and profit. Soon, Rydel is in as much trouble as Chester is, and they are all on the lam. The Two Faces of January is a languid, mature thriller that boasts a gorgeous retro feel. There are plenty of nods to Agatha Christie and Tom Clancy here, elements of Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed as well, all tied together with impeccable framing and a classic 1960s British look — think Ted Moore or Geoffrey Unsworth — courtesy cinematographer Marcel Zyskind. Just as in any good thriller, as the plot unfolds, so too do the characters, our ostensible hero revealing himself to be self-absorbed and emotionally stunted, our alleged villain with a maturity and understanding that … Continue reading

Spenser: For Hire – Now on DVD from Warner Archive

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Former boxer turned police officer turned private eye, Spenser — no first names please, he’s got an air of mystery to maintain — has just lost a client, a former hooker who was shot by the henchmen of the gangster trying to bring her back into his fold. Hired the next day to find the missing wife of a rich real estate developer, Spenser discovers this businessman is also involved with the same gangster, while the developer’s wife has, somewhat shockingly, taken up with a group of revolutionaries. “Promised Land,” the pilot for the television series Spenser: For Hire (1985), is a fine adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s novel of the same name, though slimmed down for its hour-and-a-half runtime — expected, certainly, but something that Parker’s longtime fans have often criticized. In the books, Spenser is a complicated man; in the show, Spenser (Robert Urich) is still complicated, but in that television sort of way, by which I mean he’s more human than almost anyone else on television was in the mid-1980s, but less human than, well, actual humans. That’s not to say “Promised Land” is middlebrow television, because it certainly is not. Spenser, an educated, liberal — usually — makes it clear he pro gun control, pro feminism, anti racist, pro LGBT rights, and more. It’s somewhat shocking to watch this telefilm today, given the shift in our culture which would make the Spenser of “Promised Land” an instant enemy for many on the political right, a controversial … Continue reading

Honeymoon (2014)

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Honeymoon ★★★½ / ★★★★★ Director: Leigh Janiak Magnolia Pictures/Magnet Releasing (Official Site) 87 Minutes In Theaters September 12, 2014 (Limited) – “Amongst all the savage beasts, none is found so harmful as woman.” John Chrysostom, as quoted in The Bridal Bed (Joseph Braddock, 1961)   Newlyweds Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway), suffering from acute hipsterism and chronic adorableness, make their way to a belated honeymoon spent at her family’s vacation home, a cabin located, as they say, in the woods. It’s a silly premise, and it’s to first-time director Leigh Janiak’s credit that Honeymoon overcomes such a dire opening to become an intriguing, tight little film. Once the newlyweds arrive at the lakeside cabin, their enthusiasm unsurprisingly turns into an awkward period of adjustment, each revealing some slightly off-kilter habits and weird turns of phrase. When the couple run into Bea’s childhood friend Will (Ben Huber) and his sickly wife Annie (Hanna Brown), things turn from awkward to uncomfortable. Paul is responsible for most of this attitude change. Very early on, he seems to be experiencing a perverse kind of buyer’s remorse, marriage triggering some very unappealing and base behaviors in him. Her physicality unsettles him; her self-reliance baffles him. By the time Bea is found in the middle of the night, naked and freezing in the woods after an episode of sleepwalking, he only briefly considers she may be in trouble, and instead suspects she had been hooking up with Will. Clearly, it took precious little for … Continue reading

Warner Archive: The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

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When it came to attracting the eye of some of the biggest silent screen legends, Vilma Bánky had no peer. After acting in a few films in her native Hungary, producer Samuel Goldwyn spied her in 1925 and persuaded her to come to Hollywood. She agreed, and became an immediate sensation. First paired with Ronald Colman in the hit The Dark Angel (1925), she went on to play against Rudolph Valentino in two of his most famous films, The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik, before returning to costar yet again with Colman in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926). And if being romanced on screen by Valentino and Colman wasn’t enough, take note: the other rival for her affections in Barbara Worth was none other than Gary Cooper in his first featured role. The Winning of Barbara Worth is gorgeously shot by legendary cinematographers George Barnes, already an established quantity in Hollywood, and Gregg Toland, who was just starting out. Filmed in Black Rock Desert near the towns of Trego, Winnemucca and Gerlach, many locals were hired as extras, and ranchers were paid to round up their livestock and bring them in for several scenes. The conditions were brutal, with temperatures reaching up to 124°F, and sandstorms and thunderstorms rolling in with alarming frequency. There were injuries, fisticuffs and alarming issues with some of the genuine cowboys hired on, a few of whom ended up in jail. Based on the best-selling book by Harold Bell Wright, adapted by … Continue reading

Warner Archive: Arrowsmith (1931)

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In 1931, producer Samuel Goldwyn was in a real bind. His film The Unholy Garden had been a complete disaster from start to finish, enraging Ronald Colman, Goldwyn Pictures’ star actor, who never quite got over having been contractually forced to appear in the film. A horrifying production, terrible reviews and even worse box office receipts plagued the film. As Goldwyn’s biographer A. Scott Berg put it, “The Unholy Garden would forever stand as the worst blot on the records of everyone involved with it.” It was that kind of bad movie. When Goldwyn chose Sinclair Lewis’ award-winning novel Arrowsmith for Colman’s next film, he did so with nothing but good intentions and hopes of repairing both his and Colman’s reputations. In choosing Arrowsmith, however, he immediately (and surely inadvertently) saddled the film with it’s own reputation of, as Self-Styled Siren put it, being “dull Oscar-bait.” Where there is an award, there will be award bait, and it’s true that Arrowsmith fits that bill to an extent. The biggest flaw of this cinematic adaptation — and perhaps the reason no studio producer was interested in the novel in the first place — is that paring the story down meant the little nuance Lewis’ novel possessed was lost in on-the-nose dialogue and visuals, with not a simile or metaphor to be found. As my beloved Mordaunt Hall said in the New York Times on Arrowsmith’s release: This highly praiseworthy translation of the career of Martin Arrowsmith, M. D., may seem a … Continue reading

Are You Here (2013)

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Are You Here ★★☆☆☆ Director: Matthew Weiner Millennium Entertainment 113 Minutes In Theaters August 22, 2014 (Limited) and on DVD September 30, 2014 – Quirky comedy Are You Here (2013) is a tale of the most bourgeois of bromances between two pals in a bizarre, yet strangely dull, codependent relationship. This is the first feature-length outing from Matthew Weiner, a writer-director with one hell of a pedigree. Despite his stellar writing on the iconic “Mad Men,” Are You Here reflects none of the nuance or introspection audiences have come to expect from his work. Owen Wilson plays the inexplicably-named Steve Dallas, an Annapolis weatherman and womanizer whose loyalty to buddy Ben (Zach Galifianakis) is based not just on a lifetime of friendship, but copious weed and the fact that only an emotionally askew person like Ben would put up with Dallas in the first place. Ben is not an easy person to love, either; his passions, while noble, turn hostile at whim. When Ben’s estranged father dies, he returns to his hometown with Steve in tow. The situation is as uncomfortable as expected: his sister Terri (Amy Poehler) is perpetually angry, especially at their dad’s young widow (Laura Ramsey), and when Ben is left the bulk of the large estate, the situation becomes critical. Though ostensibly about Ben’s family, the film’s real focus is on Steve, where a rakish Wilson plays the exact kind of rakish character he’s played for well over a decade. Steve spends his days trolling for … Continue reading

Earth Girls Are Easy (1988)

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Valerie (Geena Davis) is a gorgeous beautician living in the San Fernando Valley with her doctor fiance Ted (Charles Rocket). For reasons never explained — his girlfriend is Geena Davis, for cryin’ out loud — Ted likes to boff other women, thus neglects Valerie in the bedroom and can’t get too worked up for their impending nuptials. The day after he gets his cheatin’ ass kicked out of their gorgeous Valley home, an adorable spaceship holding three very fuzzy aliens crashes in the pool. They can’t speak English and think Lava Lamps are refreshing beverages, but otherwise are mostly harmless. Quick-thinking Valerie gets her stoner friend Woody (Michael McKean) to drain the pool so the ship can be repaired, but it will take a day for the water to drain. In an attempt to keep the aliens from being discovered as, well, aliens, she brings them to the beauty shop she works at, where master beautician Candy (Julie Brown) shaves them all down and turns them into hunks, as one does: Shenanigans ensue as they go out and party the night away. Meanwhile, jerkface Ted starts to suspect something is up, while Valerie and the captain of the alien ship, Mac (Jeff Goldblum) fall in love. A see-through hot pink swimsuit, just like grandma used to wear.   Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) exists solely as a vehicle for beefcake and cheesecake. Okay, sure, there are some musical numbers, and Julie Brown’s script and pop songs are a hoot — … Continue reading

The Congress (2013)

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The Congress ★★★☆☆ Director: Ari Folman Drafthouse Films (Official Site) 122 Minutes Now Available on iTunes and On Demand | In Theaters August 29, 2014 – “Lousy choices,” Al tells his client. “That’s your whole story.” Al (Harvey Keitel) is agent and frustrated father figure to Robin Wright (playing a riff on herself) who, as Al reminds her, has only one last chance at big screen success. Miramount Pictures is giving her that one chance, but as she discovers when she meets with the studio president (Danny Huston), they don’t want her to play a role: they want to scan her. Miramount tells her this is her last chance, that everyone will be storing their likenesses and talent in studio computers, and if she passes this up she’ll never appear on screen again. And the beauty of this system, she is told, is that they no longer have to worry about her aging, her needs, or that pesky thing called free will. The Congress, the new film by Ari Folman, treats this astounding offer as simply the next step in where we are already headed, and is probably right to do so. After all, nearly 20 years ago, computers resurrected Fred Astaire so he could dance with a vacuum cleaner; just two years ago, computers shaved a decade or more off the entire cast of The Hobbit (2012). It’s not just that we have the technology to do these things, but that audiences, wanting both the reassurance of well-known faces … Continue reading