Birdman and Budapest: The Fall Rewind, Part 1

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Here’s how I spent the last three months of the year, checking out some celebrated new releases and revisiting some old favorites.

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American Schemers

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(Minor spoilers ahead for The Wolf of Wall  Street and American Hustle.)

“Everyone wants to be rich,” says Jordan Belfort, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in The Wolf of Wall Street. But Belfort isn’t speaking aspirationally; his remark is infused with contempt. He’s a predator stalking sheep, the fatter and lazier the better.

And we’re them, the suckers, the dreamers. We’re prey for the hustlers and the schemers. The twin hallmarks of the American capitalistic model is that for every person who believes he can strike it rich quickly, there’s an operator out there hungry to take full advantage of that, whether be it through can’t-miss investments, be-like-me infomercials, or even a state lottery.

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Profile in Liquid Courage: The Verdict (1982)

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Note: This review was written over a decade ago for Legal Times. But the Blu Ray of this great film was released last month, and so….

Ordinary noises, human sounds dominate The Verdict, the greatest courtroom drama ever filmed. Whether they are the bells of a pinball machine, the hiss and hum of a hospital respirator, or the clink of ice cubes in a whiskey glass, they serve a far more important function here than mere aural landscaping.

Director Sidney Lumet drapes his film in a shroud of stillness of grief, of regret. It’s dark. It’s Boston. It’s winter. There is no soundtrack in the movie to speak of — and extended sequences where no one talks. So that when we hear something as benign as the bumper of a pinball machine as the movie opens, we welcome the comfort it provides.

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30 films in 30 days: #1 Casablanca (1942)/#2 Algiers (1938)

In an effort to jump start this blog, I’m committing to watching 30 films in 30 days, chronicling them as I go. There’s no plan, no agenda. I watch whatever appeals to me at the moment. First up: One of the immortals—and one of the, uh, mortals.

I didn’t intend for Casablanca, of all films, to be the one that launched this project, but the Blu-ray (the 2008, not the new 2012 restoration) arrived in the mail and I thought, why not? It’s only fitting. I was first exposed to this landmark as a teenager at the Drexel Theater on the east side of Columbus. And have likely watched it two dozen times since.

To me, it’s neither the greatest film ever made nor my own personal favorite (although I’m not sure I could easily come up with better candidates on either score). Rather, it’s that Casablanca to me encapsulates every reason to go to the movies. I have a bias toward what I might call high-end popcorn films and nothing has ever delivered sheer entertainment quite as effectively as this wartime thriller. Continue reading

In defense of Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve!)

Truth is, I have never been much of an envelope-pusher. When the chips tumble in the wrong direction, I take refuge in genre. And to me, as a fan of classic filmmakers like Howard Hawks and John Ford or modern ones such as Michael Mann, nothing gives me more pleasure than a well-crafted genre piece. It’s a critical weakness, I know. And strangely, I am more forgiving of it with film than I am with literature. I can’t remember the last time I read an airport potboiler, but I’ll defend a film that never breaks convention to the last breath.

The trick is, naturally, smarts. Polanski can make Chinatown or Frantic and give a new spin on Hammett and Hitchcock. Eastwood can update the western with Unforgiven. Tarantino can take a World War II film in a new direction with Inglourious Basterds. It’s like a cover of a pop song. The interpretation is the attraction; the artist filtering the material through his or her own sensibilities. I have probably always found that more interesting than the avant-guardians who are the true pioneers. I won’t succumb to electronic music, splatters on a canvas , or Joycian narratives. But again, that’s my problem.

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BP Saturday Night at the Movies: The Third Man (1949)

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly. — Harry Lime

The most famous quote from a film packed with good lines. Orson Welles’ entrance into the story is so well-known, so famous for perhaps being the most dramatic reveal in cinema, that it surprised me when I realized that his name is third-billed in the opening credits. These days, that would qualify as a spoiler alert, with every armchair analyst simply waiting for Welles to show up.  But audiences 60 years ago weren’t as jaded, weren’t so adept at reverse-engineering movies.

Seeing it again (and appreciating it more than ever), I was struck by how ineffectual Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins is. He doesn’t solve the mystery. He can’t win the girl. He’s a complete failure at the lecture he delivers. Moreover, Martins knows exactly who he is. He knows he’s a two-bit writer of “cheap novellas,” just as he knows, deep down, he can’t compete with Lime for the heart of Anna Schmidt.

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On Thanksgiving, 12 films I’m thankful for

These aren’t the best films ever made—or ones recommended for essential viewing. Few of them could even be called classics–and none is about to play at an art house. Instead, here’s a list of movies that simply give me pleasure whenever I return to them. They’re more like your mother’s stuffing. Somehow you don’t grow tired of it.

In no particular order:

The Big Sleep (1946)

From the moment Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe walks into the Sternwood mansion and meets Carmen Sternwood, played by the electric  Martha Vickers, Howard Hawks’ mystery takes us into a world of sharply drawn characters, all of whom  engage Marlowe with sharp-edged, tart dialogue, usually either challenging or flirtatious.

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