Some quick takes on movies I’ve seen recently … (oh, and ratings are out of four stars maximum)
A Bronx Tale (1993)
I’m not sure why I had never caught this coming-of-age story, especially since it boasts such an impressive pedigree. In his directorial debut, Robert DeNiro obviously soaked up a lot from his experiences working with Martin Scorsese; the movie is at its most lush and energetic, albeit derivative, when it recreates the Italian-American neighborhoods of the Bronx during the early Sixties. Alas, Chazz Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical screenplay (based on his play) is ham-fisted and ultimately burdened with groan-inducing contrivances. Francis Capra Jr. is excellent, however, as the protagonist at age nine.
Goodbye, Lenin (2002)
Against the backdrop of the 1989 dismantling of the Berlin Wall, this story chronicles a young man’s attempt to protect his mother, having recently emerged from a coma, from knowing that her beloved East Germany has quickly slipped into the funkiness of western capitalism. Director Wolfgang Becker keeps the proceedings clever and crisply paced. The movie was a big hit in Germany, where it resonated with audiences for obvious reasons, but it is also an example of solidly crafted cinema. Becker knows his stuff, and manages to pay quickie homage to Stanley Kubrick, among others.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
I wasn’t prepared for this heartbreaking masterpiece of Japanese anime about two children orphaned during World War II and struggling to survive in the countryside. This is about as sad a war story as you are likely to see, but don’t mistake this for a finger-wagging morality play; it primarily works on the level of of its own harrowing personal drama. Directed by Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies eschews political concerns, but it is still an important — and eye-opening — perspective for American audiences.
Directed by D.W. Griffith, this three-hour epic silent melodrama ostensibly chronicles intolerance and hatred through four periods (Babylon, Judea, 16th century Paris and then-contemporary America), but all of it eventually boils down to ostentatious sets and Griffith’s fondness for wayward girls with big eyes and interesting names (Mountain Girl, the Dear One, etc.) assailed by the mean ol’ world (perhaps Griffith was the ancestral soulmate of Lars von Trier). While intolerancee is more interesting as a slice of historical cinema than it is a story — this is a 1916 silent melodrama, after all — it remains impressive for its sheer in-your-face audacity.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
A British black comedy about an effeminate fop killing his way to an inherited title, this movie is more apt to be appreciated for its droll edginess than it is enjoyed. Alec Guinness is always fun to watch — he has eight roles here — but lead Dennis Price is stiff and unconvincing; and the film’s languorous pace is as murderous as the would-be duke who is our protagonist/villain.
My Favorite Year (1982)
Richard Benjamin’s directorial debut would have sunk into obscurity without the ever-watchable Peter O’Toole. A pleasant, if forgettable, comedy set in 1954 New York, O’Toole stars as drunk swashbuckling movie star Alan Swann, who is slated to appear on a TV variety show — as long as he can remain sober. My Favorite Year certainly isn’t a bad movie, but the Dennis Palumbo screenplay never really cuts loose, and instead loses its way with on-the-nose dialogue and musty caricatures about New York Jews.
Office Space (1999)
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this Mike Judge comedy, but it never gets tiresome. What a great comedy; and a rare one, too, when you compare it to the loud and ridiculous state of most big-budget comedies. Ron Livingston is a wonderful Everyman, and Judge has a sharp ear for memorable lines (“You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear”) and eye for detail (even Livingston’s sterile, cookie-cutter apartment is completely right). The works-sucks theme, of course, makes Office Space truly universal. And about those TPS reports …