Friends With Kids

Friends with Kids

Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut, Friends with Kids, is a lighthearted romantic comedy with an indie sensibility striving to be something just a bit more but, inevitably, falling to all of the third act clichés that plague most romantic comedies.  A film basically about the way our relationships change when kids enter the picture, the film is charming if a little guileless and confused in thematic content.  The film follows a group of friends, all in different stages in their relationships and how they morph and change once they have kids.

The core of the film follows two best friends, played by Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott, who decide to have a kid together without all of the mess associated with it like a relationship or marriage.  The rest of the ensemble is filled out with alumni from Bridesmaids – Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig, and Jon Hamm – a group of friends who end up having kids and, in effect, provide the best case for how having kids effects and strains romantic relationships.  Westfeldt and Scott’s characters’ platonic relationship works out pretty well until each strike out on their own romantic relationships with Edward Burns and Megan Fox, respectively.

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Five Minutes of Heaven

Five Minutes of Heaven

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Five Minutes of Heaven is a hypnotic drama about the power of forgiveness and the heavy weight of our pasts using the violent era of the mid 1970s in Northern Ireland as a prism through which to explore its heady themes.  Hirschbiegel, directing from a snappy, knowing script by Guy Hibbert, expertly portrays the gut-wrenching emotions and keeps the film from being a stylistic exercise.  Rather he perfectly captures deep, penetrating moments and encapsulates an era of violence in riveting detail.

Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt play two men talked into meeting for a television program.  Neeson was a young USF member who shot Nesbitt’s brother in cold blood in front of Nesbitt as a young child.   The tension of the film rises and abates expertly throughout.  First, with its introductory scene, we witness the violent incident in a near-perfect build up.  The tension slowly rises again as the meeting between the two men inches forward with unexpected results.  Will Nesbitt kill Neeson?  Is reconciliation possible?

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L.A. Confidential

LA Confidential

Curtis Hanson’s seminal crime epic L.A. Confidential is a master class in telling a story economically and entertainingly as well.  Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s adaptation turns James Ellroy’s monster of a novel into a clean, well told story that never feels like its leaving anything out to better fit an under three-hour picture.  In effect, there is not a wasted frame or line of dialogue throughout the film as each piece fits together seamlessly building to a thrilling gun battle at a rundown motel.

Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce lead an all-star cast as three very different detectives drawn into a web of conspiracy and murder when one of their own is killed in a sleazy diner.  Prostitution, drugs, and corruption are the name of the game in the seedy world of 1950’s Los Angeles.   To get into the story would take up far too much time but needless to say, like all the great noirs, the story takes numerous twists and turns and a lesser filmmaker would have made a confusing mess of it.  But Hanson handles the material deftly, guiding the viewer and its main protagonists through a labyrinthine story that can be hard to process on the page but crackles off the screen.

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Splendor in the Grass

Splendor in the Grass

Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass sets the tone right from its first scene with our two protagonists in the midst of a make out session by a rushing waterfall.  Considering that this is also Warren Beatty’s first scene ever in a motion picture, it’s almost doubly appropriate.  Beatty throughout his career would be looked at as the hunky movie star exuding sex appeal and right from the start, the star begins his tumultuous relationship with women, on and off screen, as sex would play in an important role in the majority of his major work in the years to come.  In fact, Kazan’s film, with a script by William Inge, is quite shocking for its time considering its treatment of sexuality, with Natalie Wood’s character in particular.

Wood and Beatty play two teenagers madly in love with each other in Kansas during the late 1920s.  The specter of the market crash looms over the proceedings as the two characters deal with their relationship, school, and family.  Kazan deals head on with teenage sexuality creating a frank and open dialogue about sex and the pent up frustration of growing up.  Well, the two characters do seem madly in love but they could just as easily be madly in lust.  Throughout, the characters bemoan, scream, and shriek, pushing up against the idea of being “good” instilled by their parents.  The two characters fighting these urges culminate in their eventual breakup and in Wood’s sexual mania.

Beatty is good here in his film debut, playing it subdued and bristling, as the frustrations with his characters longing for something just a little bit more with Wood’s character as well as bustling up against his father’s expectations of him, another major theme of the film well represented.  Beatty feels fresh here, still charming but not overbearingly so as would characterize some of his later work.  There’s a vulnerability to his performance here that he would later lose as he would seem to gain more and more confidence.

It’s Natalie Wood, however, who delivers quite the knockout performance.  After the break-up of the relationship, Wood’s character goes mad in sexual frustration and despair and has a complete nervous breakdown.  There are moments where the scenes almost become too much and border dangerously close to parody but Wood’s performance and primal screams keep the film’s more melodramatic elements in check.  She gives a completely naked performance, bearing herself, body and soul and elevates the film into something truly special.

Teenage frustration and longing can be a difficult thing to represent on film.  Often, it can become overly obnoxious and annoying as a multitude of teen films has demonstrated.  Kazan, however, guides two wonderful performances from his leads and makes a real believable story about not just the sexual mores of young adulthood but growing up into one’s own self.  Much of the dramatic conflict comes from outside as well as within the relationship, as Beatty’s father played by Pat Hingle imposes his own wants and desire upon his son.  Hingle is boisterously good as Beatty’s father, switching from a loving father pose to menacing distress with ease.  Wood’s mother, played by Audrey Christie, enforces her own rules of morality upon her daughter as well leading to her eventual breakdown.  She of course is oblivious to this blaming everything that goes wrong on a young Beatty.

There’s a wistful nostalgia to better period even when the film is living within them but the film is quick to dismiss the notion.  Characters are in constant motion, trying to decide the people they want to be and trying to decide who they are from moment to moment.  Kazan has crafted a beautifully shot film with some strong central performances.  Without the strength of Wood and Beatty at the heart of the film, things could easily fall into annoying pastiches of old clichés about growing up.  Beatty and Wood imbue their characters with real warmth, vulnerability, and despair.

There are a few story problems with the film.  Though the inevitable market crash provides the story with an undercurrent of foreboding, it’s entire purpose in the story feels unclear.  An instance of dramatic irony creates a situation where Wood’s and Beatty’s families switch power positions in town but with the exception of one tragic occurrence, little is done with the story point.  Speaking of families, Beatty’s character has a party girl sister who throws herself onto any man that comes her way.  She represents everything that our two main characters are controlling themselves to keep from becoming.  However, part way through the film after a harrowing near rape that leads to the eventual dissolution of the Beatty and Wood’s relationship in consequence, the character completely disappears with only a line or two at the end to indicate her ultimate fate.  It’s a bit befuddling as it was an interesting character to thrust between two incredibly chaste characters but it seems, like the male characters in the film, once they ran out of use for her, they disposed of her just as quickly.

As much as the first half of the film seems dedicated to the undercurrents of sexual frustration and dissatisfaction, the film moves beyond that one note and folds it into the larger themes of who we want to be and that vital time in our lives when we come to terms with how we want to get there.  It’s once Beatty loses his virginity to another girl and Wood spirals into despair that the film comes alive in interesting and unexpected ways.  Splendor in the Grass takes its title from a poem by William Wordsworth recited within the film about the beauty of the past and the strength to take from that youth you never get back.  Kazan’s film dramatizes those elements to great effect and creates a beautifully acted drama out of those simple ideas and real human conflicts.

Solaris

Solaris

Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative, deeply humanistic Solaris stands as an answer to Stanley Kubrick’s mechanical 2001: A Space Odyssey in the way it pushes the scientific intrigues of its subject matter to the background, bringing the characters and their internal human drama to the forefront.  Tarkovsky’s overlong, indulgent treatise on humanism within the science fiction realm treats its characters with loving graces and spends so much time with them that the sci-fi artifice that surrounds them seems almost inconsequential.

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Stolen Kisses

Stolen Kisses

Stolen Kisses is the third film in Francois Truffaut’s continuing examination of Antoine Doinel, started so masterfully with the 400 Blows.  It’s incredibly impressive as Truffaut not only revisits the character but the actor, Jean-Pierre Leaud, as well seeing him develop as a performer and really see him become a man.  Here, we see Antoine develop as a young man, just discharged from the army, as he attempts to find work in Paris.

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Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor

Sydney Pollack was the ultimate filmmaker for adults.  He made thrilling, funny, exciting, and dramatic films that spanned all genres but they all shared two very specific attributes.  They were made to be entertaining.  And they were made for adults.  That can be hard to grasp in today’s movie climate in which all studio action movies and thrillers are geared towards pre-teens and teenagers but 1975’s Three Days of the Condor is Pollack at his ultimate best.  Pollack creates a tense, claustrophobic thriller that is as thrilling as any paperback by Ludlum or the other great thriller writers.

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Scarlet Street

Scarlet Street

Edward G. Robinson is mostly remembered for his various Warner Bros. gangster pictures in which he totes around a Tommy-gun intimidating and murdering people without remorse or regret.  However, his greatest screen role, in my humble opinion, comes in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, a darkly cynical noir about a meek cashier played by Robinson who is seduced and falls in love with a con artist.  As far away as one could get from the brash bravado of his earlier characters, this 1945 film has Robinson portraying a character who has given up in life, relegate to an unhappy marriage and a repetitive, meaningless job with his only passion, painting, consigned to a side hobby that is shouted down and torn asunder by a shrill, sour wife.

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The Manchurian Candidate

As ensconced as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate is in Cold War politics and Communist paranoia, this absorbing, captivating thriller is still as timely and relevant as ever.   Through the actions of the politicians that the film revolves around and the fear of losing control of one’s own mind and their own free will, Frankenheimer has made a film that stands as timeless as ever.

The film is anchored by two heavyweight performances in Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey, plus a deeply disturbed supporting role by Angela Lansbury.  Frank Sinatra plays Marco, a Korean War vet troubled by dreams of fellow soldier Raymond Shaw, played by Harvey, murdering his own soldiers under Communist duress.  As we soon find, Shaw has been brainwashed to commit a terrible act of sabotage against the United States.  A bubbling sense of conspiracy and dread builds as Shaw and Marco struggle with what it all means.  Lansbury plays Shaw’s manipulative mother, the wife of a US Senator vying for the vice-Presidency.

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The Iron Lady

The second The Iron Lady was announced, Meryl Streep’s Oscar was already certified and ready to be awarded.  Streep as Margaret Thatcher, England’s first female prime minister and a controversial political figure of the Cold War era, is the kind of part that breeds Oscars and putting the most nominated actress of all time in that part is a relative sure thing.  Unfortunately, the script by Abi Morgan and direction by Phyllidia Lloyd is nowhere near as strong as it should be and all the film has is a strong central performance that feels all for naught.

It’s not necessarily the filmmakers’ fault per se.  The biopic has been a lethargic prestige genre designed to get their lead performers award recognition and little else.  It’s a sound strategy as Jamie Foxx can attest for his stirring performance in Ray.  But be honest with yourself, what do you really recall of the film?  The problem with the biopic is that it tries to take in too much of the person’s life.  A film tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and end with a central theme linking all parts taking us to the end.  Many of these biopics try to condense a whole life into those two hours not taking into account the major swings and turns that a life takes over the course of decades.  In the end, the films make simplistic statements on their subjects but there’s little depth given and ultimately, at best, you have a turgid film with an actor at its center giving it their all and then some.

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