Category Archives: Cinema

Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Léa Seydoux

It’s fairly obvious that when a new Bond Girl debuts she is going to be a stunner. And in 2015’s Spectre, the ravishing Léa Seydoux most definitely lived up to the hype. But her Dr. Madeleine Swann is also tough and resourceful enough to be a match for Daniel Craig’s James Bond. And not just in the bedroom. In fact, Bond would never extract himself from his various life-threatening predicaments without Dr. Swann’s assistance taking on the title’s ultra-deadly criminal organization. And if Spectre turned the stunning Ms. Seydoux into an overnight pop culture phenomenon, the truth is that the 30-year-old French actress has been busy earning her place in the spotlight for several years now.

lea-seydoux-3

Born in Paris to well-off and media-connected parents, Léa origially wanted to be an opera singer and did not start to pursue acting until her late teens. After some work modeling and appearing in short films, she broke through with 2008’s The Beautiful Person, which garnered her awards for best upcoming actress at Cannes and at the Césars. From there she was off and running, as the film world took notice of not just her natural peaches-and-cream, blue-eyed Gallic beauty but also her impressive acting chops and emotional daring.

lea-seydoux-6

Ms. Seydoux had small roles in big pictures, Tarrantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010). Then in 2011 Woody Allen picked her out for a plum role in his excellent Midnight In Paris and she landed a lead role in the latest installment of the Tom Cruise action blockbuster franchise, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

lea_seydoux-5

She was back working in France for two big critical successes, as the servant girl witnessing Marie Antoinette’s last days in Farewell, My Queen and the controversially erotic art house smash, Blue Is the Warmest Color.

lea-seydoux-1

And now she’s won the double-edged immortality that comes with being a Bond Girl. But Léa Seydoux’s steel-wrapped-in-silk portrayal of Madeleine Swann may be the most formidable member of that illustrious club since Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore… and without having to be stuck with a campy name to boot.

lea-seydoux-4

It’s only fitting that she and Craig walk off into the sunset to close out this excellent era of the Bond saga. But with her wonderful abilities as an actress and a face that the camera loves and is built to melt hearts, there’s no way we’ve seen the last of Ms. Seydoux. Which is surely a good thing because we’re looking forward to her future career being as impressive and exciting as her astonishing start.



Classic Movie Watch — Battleground (1949)

It is sorely tempting to recommend Battleground as a Holiday movie because so much of the action takes place around Christmastime. But since it’s an archetypal World War II film I figured I better just include it along with the other classic movies we talk about around here. Still, there is something about watching it during the Holiday Season that makes you thankful that such brave soldiers stepped up to the grueling challenge of defeating the monstrosity that was Nazi Germany those many years ago. And while this 1949 movie is a long way from the justifiably gung ho, sentimental propaganda that was a Hollywood mainstay during the actual war years, I’d still be willing to bet that you might find yourself tearing up at points thinking about what these young men had to go through in order to prevail against such steep odds. Such is the excellence and impact of the terrifically well made Battleground even to this day.

The film recounts the famous predicament of a very banged up and replacement-heavy Army VIII Corps, including the 101st Airborne division, when they were cut off and encircled deep in the Ardennes Forest by the Third Reich’s last desperate offensive push, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Familiar to anyone who has watched the excellent HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, this was actually a cock up by the Allied Forces by somewhat letting down their guard after the initial hard-fought success of D-Day and the semi-setback of Market Garden. The massive and perfectly orchestrated German attack on overly stretched lines took the Americans and the Allies completely by surprise and it was only after very hurried reinforcement, enduring heavy casualties and the clearing of some of the worst winter weather in years that the combination of Patton’s 3rd Army coming up from the south and US air power could be successfully deployed to bring relief to the soldiers trapped in the Ardennes. In all, the Battle of the Bulge lasted from December 14, 1944 to January 25, 1945 but the key breakthrough by Patton’s forward relief force arrived the day after Christmas, the true beginning of the end of the battle. A largely German-American affair, each side suffered massive casualties but ultimately it was the outnumbered Americans who thwarted the surprise German advance, eventually breaking the back of the enemy incursion and essentially dooming the potential for the Third Reich to sue for peace on any terms other than complete surrender.

Battleground-2

The excellent ensemble cast features the great character actor James Whitmore as the rock-like Platoon Sargent Kinnie, Van Johnson (usually a song & dance man) as the very funny and reluctantly heroic scrounger PFC Holley and a young and very good Ricardo Montalban as Los Angelino “Johnny” Roderigues, among other quality performances. Continue reading

Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Annabelle Wallis

There is a moment in the enjoyably pulpy biographical BBC miniseries, Fleming, when the actress portraying Muriel Wright, Ian Fleming’s wartime flame and proto-Bond girl, walks away from the camera in her full-body tan leather motorcycle courier’s suit. She looks over her shoulder with a develish grin and a flip of her blond locks as if to say a cheerfully insouciant goodbye to her none-too-loyal lover. It’s in that moment that the viewer realizes he’s watching an actresss destined for big things. That actress is the stunning Annabelle Wallis.

AnnabelleWallis-5

The 31-year-old Briton was born in Oxford but spent her formidable years abroad in Portugal, where she became fluent not only in Portuguese but also French and Spanish. A niece of the legendary Richard Harris and cousin to the talented Jared Harris of Mad Men fame, it seems only fitting that Annabelle joined the family business. After several small roles she broke through in Showtime’s The Tudors as Jane Seymour, third wife to Jonathan Rhys Myers’ Henry VIII.

AnabelleWallis-6

From there she was in the regrettably short-lived retro swinging stewardess series, Pan Am, alongside fellow blonde bombshell Margot Robbie and the always excellent Christina Ricci. Then in 2014 she was the inspiration for the archetypal Bond girl in two memorable episodes of Fleming opposite the up-and-coming Dominic Cooper in the titular role. That year was good to her, as she was also a lead in the supernatural thriller Annabelle and back on TV making a big impression with a major role in BBC’s excellent gangster series, Peaky Blinders, as the complex Grace Burgess alongside Cillian Murphy’s fierce crime boss.

AnnabelleWallis-2

With several more features in pre- and post-production, as well as a highly publicized romance with Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, Ms. Wallis is surely poised to keep her momentum going. And with such a diverse range of quality work already on her impressive resume can it be long before Hollywood sees what we see in the fair-haired lass and starts putting her in big time leading roles?

AnnabelleWallis-4

True, with an attractiveness based on beautiful but not perfect features and sly wit, Annabelle is not the airbrushed, cookie cutter ingenue that makes her the “safe” pick for a leading lady. But with her impressive acting chops and that undefinable undercurrent of intrigue that she brings to every role, not to mention that fleeting, fetching smile, it seems to us that she’s the cure for the ordinary actress. We’d certainly take her in period costume or full length leather jump suit six days a week and twice on Sundays.

Classic Movie Watch — The Dirty Dozen (1967)

In a case of supremely ironic timing, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen was released in 1967 at the height of the “Summer of Love.” As one of the toughest, nastiest and most fatalistic classic war movies, there is not a lot of love in the Dirty Dozen. But there is a killer plot, action galore and a very cool, badass ensemble cast of male stars who make the whole thing tick over like clockwork. Sharing the hard bitten cynicism and mordant humor that came to dominate the best 1960s WWII films like The Bridge At Remagen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare, Dirty Dozen reflects both the experiences of the actual combat veterans who contributed to the making of the film, as well as the creeping disillusionment with the nation’s quickly souring military involvement in Vietnam. After the recent Spielbergian gloss given to World War II in the violent but heroic Saving Private Ryan and the excellent and idealistic Band of Brothers, where the action is doubtless brutal but the characters themselves are invariably heroic, one wonders whether today’s moviegoing public would be ready to accept a deranged group of criminal misfits like “The Dozen” as their heroes. But the audiences of the late 1960s made the film a colossal hit, so maybe that says something about the differing need for hero worship between that generation versus ours.

Loosely based on actual events, the plot of The Dirty Dozen unfolds in classic three-act action-adventure epic style: Picking the Men, Training the Men and the Mission. Only in this case the “elite force” being assembled is drawn from a group of convicts in military lockup facing either death sentences or decades-long prison time. And the mission is a suicidal attack on a German staff officer “rest & relaxation” chateau behind enemy lines in pre-D-Day Normandy. Drawing the unenviable task of assembling these misfits into a cohesive commando unit is maverick Major John Reisman, played by the inimitable Lee Marvin. If The Big Heat is Marvin’s apotheosis as the ultra-heavy villain, The Dirty Dozen reflects the archetype of Marvin’s remarkable second act as a lead actor in big films: still the hard man capable of extreme violence but in the end possessed of an individual code of honor that turns him from bad guy into ambiguous hero. As it would again later in Sam Fuller’s excellent The Big Red One, Marvin’s real life combat service as a Marine in the Pacific Theater, were he saw fierce action and was badly wounded, informs his performance as the sardonic and relentless Major Reisman as he badgers, threatens and cajoles his convict team into a cohesive fighting unit. Like many great coaches and military leaders, Reisman’s genius is to realize that if he can get the group of men to hate him they will in turn bond with each other.

thedirtydozen-2

And what a group! Featuring some of the most macho and physically imposing 1960’s actors, as well as some bona fide rising stars, the convicts include Charles Bronson as an honorable German-speaking Polish American convicted of shooting his unit’s cowardly medic; football great Jim Brown as another decent guy wrongly convicted of murder in a case of self defense against a racist attack (this is actually the film that prompted Brown’s premature retirement from the NFL); the towering Clint Walker as a gentle giant with a fierce temper; Telly Savalas as a despicable and crazy Bible-spouting southern racist and woman hater; a young Donald Sutherland as a dim but mischievous private; and a sterling John Cassavetes as a Chicago gangster with a serious problem with authority. Cassavetes really shines among this esteemed company, seeming to channel the ghost of Humphrey Bogart as he proves the biggest obstacle to Reisman’s grand plan, resisting him at every turn through sarcasm and tooth-baring indolence. Continue reading

Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Alicia Vikander

Rising star Alicia Vikander has the look. It’s not so much the look of a perfectly polished Hollywood ingenue. It’s more intangible, more a throwback to the intriguing attractiveness possessed by those international actresses who graced the films of Truffaut and Godard in the 1960s like Anna Kerina and Jeanne Moreau. Beautiful in a soulful way and possessed of deep waters rushing beneath a placid surface, the 27-year-old Swedish actress has poise and grace rarely seen in younger performers these days, perhaps as a result of her training as a dancer. With a raft of strong performances already under her belt, Ms. Vikander is still not quite a household name yet. But she’s about to be.

AliciaVikander-3

Born in Gothenburg and the daughter of an actress, Alicia spent her formative years training to be a ballerina at the Royal Swedish Ballet School. But injuries and a burning desire to act sent her on a different path in her late teens and she found success on the Swedish soap opera, Andra Avenyn, at the age of 20. Jumping off from there she made her critically praised film debut in the Swedish film Pure, garnering several prestigious European awards for that 2010 feature.

AliciaVikander-6

Ms. Vikander broke through in the English speaking world with her role as Kitty in 2012’s adaptation of the classic weepy, Anna Kerenina, which starred Keira Knightly and Jude Law. And after making such a big impact in that relatively small role she was off to the races. After more work in Europe, she featured in The Fifth Estate (2013), the Aussie Son of a Gun (2014) and the British independent film, Testament of Youth (2015). But the movie that really put her on the radar of the general theater-going audience was 2015’s Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s spine-tinglingly dystopian directorial debut. Her role as a highly evolved artificial intelligence in beguiling semi-human form was one of the more interesting female characters to come along in years. While the exceptionally strong writing obviously did a lot of the work for the cast, which includes the outstanding Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason, Vikander’s sympathetic and unsettling work as a beautiful android pitted against humans in a life or death examination for her worthiness to exist is quite simply a tour de force. Visionary as it is, Ex Machina would not have been as great without the actress’s stunning portrayal.

AliciaVikander-5

Her breakthrough as Ava the Android officially cemented Alicia Vikander’s status as one of the hottest Swedish imports since Lena Olin. She starred in this summer’s big budget Man From U.N.C.L.E. and will appear in a slew of upcoming mainstream movies, such as Burnt with Bradley Cooper, Tulip Fever with Christoph Waltz, The Light Between the Oceans with Michael Fassbender, her now ex-boyfrirend, as well as an upcoming Bourne Identity sequel. Now that is a busy lady!

Alicia Vikander

Projecting a tender vulnerability wrapped around a steel core and with hypnotic brown eyes that always seem to hold you in their gaze, Ms. Vikander is also blessed with the acting chops to go far. She could well be this generation’s Juliette Binoche and should be aided by having an even better command of English than the great French actress. Only time will tell, of course. But one thing’s for certain: Alicia Vikander is a compelling actress well worth watching, especially if she continues to do smaller, independent films and doesn’t get swallowed up by the Hollywood Borg. We’re looking forward to watching what should be a stellar career for years to come.

Classic movie watch — The Big Heat (1953)

If you’re looking for the precursor to Dirty Harry and a thousand other righteous vigilante cops in the cinema look no further than Fritz Lang‘s 1953 film noir masterpiece, The Big Heat. Starring the underrated Glenn Ford as crusading homicide detective Dave Bannion, The Big Heat unspools like an Eisenhower-era nightmare, peeling away the veneer of wholesomeness from a mid-sized metropolis to reveal the festering corruption beneath. With bracingly modern use of brutal violence, Heat is one of Lang’s top crime masterpieces in a career filled with them, and the film still retains its power to shock and disturb today. Like so much of the Austrian genius’ output, which includes genre-defining classics like Metropolis, M, Fury and Scarlet Street, the phrase “ahead of its time” sticks to the The Big Heat. No matter how many times you’ve viewed it, you’ll come away astonished at the remarkable moral distance the film has traveled from start to finish.

While investigating a colleague’s alleged suicide and after talking to the seemingly bereaved widow, Ford’s Detective Bannion is contacted by the dead man’s mistress who reveals that not only was he keeping her on the side but that he was living far beyond the means of a policeman’s salary. After returning to push for answers from the now chilly dead cop’s wife, Bannion is then told to back off by his lieutenant. But when the mistress is found murdered, her body covered with cigarette burns, and O’Bannion begins receiving threatening calls at his home, he goes to the house of the local organized crime figure and Mr. Big, Mike Laguna (played by legendary voice actor Alexander Scourby), to confront him. Laguna offers to buy Bannion off but the straight arrow cop will have none of it. Seeing that Bannion cannot be deterred by the usual methods, the mob plans to murder Bannion by rigging his car to blow up. But when his wife ends up turning the ignition instead and his department continues to stonewall him, Bannion resigns from the force to begin a one-man crusade against Laguna and his fellow “thieves”.

TheBigHeat-3

Chief among those accomplices is Laguna’s enforcer, Vince Stone. Played to vicious perfection by the great Lee Marvin, at the peak of his early career powers when he was one of the most badass “heavies” in the movies, Marvin’s Stone is a pure psychopath capable of truly terrifying acts of sudden violence, especially against women. Continue reading

Documentary view — The Wrecking Crew (2008)

Chronicling the greatest group of musicians you never heard of, 2008’s The Wrecking Crew is a an affectionate, in-depth portrait of the crack session musicians behind some of the biggest hits in Rock ‘n Roll history. This elite group of LA sidemen was anonymous to the general public but omnipresent during the 1960s and 70s on smash hits by Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Sonny & Cher, The Byrds, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, the Mamas and the Poppas, The Righteous Brothers and Elvis Presley, to name just a few of the most prominent stars they recorded with. The Wrecking Crew also served as the real band behind ersatz music industry creations such as The Monkees and The Association, where the members did not actually play their own instruments on the records. Even on the first Byrds album, a real rock band that featured standout musicians like David Crosby and Gene Clark, it’s pretty much just Roger McGuinn and the Crew because producer Terry Melcher didn’t trust the others to play the session at first. As McGuinn slyly comments in the film, both “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” became Number 1 hits. But with just him and the Wrecking Crew, “Mr. Tambourine Man” and its B-side took about 3 hours. When all the Byrds got their chance to play on “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, that took about 77 takes.

If you’re at all interested in Rock folklore or have affection for the big pop hits of that ultra-well produced era, you’ve really got to check out this documentary. Directed by Danny Tedesco, the son of arguably the greatest and most versatile session guitarist of all time, the late Tommy Tedesco, and featuring interviews with the other greats of that exclusive club, The Wrecking Crew serves as a vital oral history of a pivotal era in American popular music. It also sheds an edifying light on a time where a handful of on call musicians worked 15-hour days and criss-crossed Los Angeles from studio to studio working one high powered session after another. Among the standouts profiled are the great electric bassist, Carol Kaye, who was groundbreaking not only because she was a woman but also because she was good enough to play an estimated 10,000 recording sessions in her career, contributing the bass hooks to pop culture artifacts like “The Beat Goes On”, “Windy” and the theme from “Mission: Impossible”. There’s a nice focus on the strong personalities of the impeccable drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, both Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers who helped form the thunderous backbeat of Spector’s immortal Wall of Sound and did less bombastic work on about a million other records. And then there are the Wrecking Crew alumni who graduated to front of the stage stardom, like Glenn Campbell, Leon Russel and Mack Rebennack aka Dr. John.

wreckingcrew-2

Ultimately a touching tribute and heartfelt salute to a fun-loving dad and his wonderfully individualistic collective of colleagues, Danny Tedesco’s affably personal piece highlights the very funny Tommy Tedesco’s wry humor and guitar genius but never at the expense of his equally talented and interesting peers. It also makes ample use of fantastic period footage and interviews with big time stars like Cher and Brian Wilson who the Wrecking Crew’s superlative talents helped make so successful. What comes across when those those big names reflect on that time is their heartfelt respect and appreciation for the invaluable musicianship and craft of the men and women who worked their sessions, made their hit records and more often than not didn’t even get an album credit. A must for the casual fan or hardcore Rock fanatic, The Wrecking Crew is both a delightful piece of nostalgia forever preserved in cinematic form and an important record of a vital but hidden behind-the-scenes part of the music industry that most of us never really knew existed. I can’t recommend it highly enough. And the best part is that it’s currently a free rental on Netflix so there’s no reason not to check it out. Chances are you’ll be blown away by the incredible number of Rock classics these session aces played on. I sure was.

Earworm of the day/A little Wednesday comedy

Ever since I flew back from vacation a few weeks ago and killed some time with the obligatory viewing of The Big Lebowski, this song has been rattling around my brain. You know the one — the psychedelic side of Kenny “The Gambler” Rogers? Who knew, right? Works on a few levels — period pop, ironic delight, its permalink with a cult classic movie. And, oh that Coen Brothers “video”!

Are you ready for the sequel?

What We’re Watching – Billabong’s “Pump!”

Even though summer still beats down on us, a surf movie may seem an odd choice for a serious film recommendation, but that’s how I’m offering it to you. Aside from Bruce Brown’s “Endless Summer” and perhaps one or two other exceptions, most surf movies can not fairly be called movies at all. They are more accurately known as “videos” – a collection of impressive surfing snippets set to some popular music of the day, without much in the way of structure, designed more to trigger memories of one’s own surf sessions or inspire one to new heights, all while steadfastly promoting a brand by unapologetically hyping the surfers who are sponsored by that brand. If you’re a surfer, they’re really fun to watch but never go beyond the fun one can find these days by watching a succession of surfing clips on Youtube. They don’t transcend themselves. They’re not movies. The one exception to this rule however, is Billabong’s Pump!.

PUMP-Billabong-Surf-DVD-NEW-amp-Sealed__61q4kO5vDtL

Pump!, produced by surf clothing company Billabong and directed by famed surf movie director Jack McCoy, was released in 1990. On its surface, Pump! essentially sticks to the same model as other surf flicks of the 80’s, with college/alternative rock playing over the surf clips and not much else of anything to drive the film form start to finish. What elevates Pump! to feature movie level however, is the subtext within these otherwise ordinary choices.
First you have the surfers themselves. The film features many members of the Billabong team circa 1990, but two emerge quickly and wordlessly as the films protagonists- Mark Occhilupo and Richie Collins. In 1990, Mark Occhilupo (known more commonly as Occy) was a bit of a mess. Just 5 years earlier he’d been one of the top ranked pro surfers on the planet, but in 1988 he gave in fully to the pressures of super-stardom and fell into a cycle of drug abuse and depression. Up until the late 90’s (when he staged a legendary comeback and finally became the world champion) his life was marked by excesses of all kinds, manifesting publicly in cycles of huge weight gains and losses, along with attempted comebacks and glimmers of glory followed quickly by his immediate disappearance again. Pump! catches him in his periods of top form during this time. While he may appear a bit off his top form physically in one or two scenes, his surfing is incredible. The only dialogue we hear in the entire movie is a voice-over leading into one segment where Occy, in his thick Aussie twang, briefly describes his loss of appetite for competition and newfound focus on free (non-competitive) surfing. Pump! catches Occy in limbo in more ways than one, and what may have been thought of (at least by Billabong) as a chance to present their fading star as still being the invincible hero of recent memory, was instead presented by McCoy as a man with incredible gifts who is in a game of chicken with fate. While his skill seems as untouchable as ever, his future does not.

Continue reading

Gorgeous Lady of the Week — Gretchen Mol

It’s not easy having a great second act as an actress in Hollywood, where 20-somethings rule and if you don’t break through by the time you’re 30 there are a dozen other fine young things ready to shove you out of the way. Which is not to say that the remarkable Gretchen Mol did not make an impact at a young age. In fact, no less than the cover of Vanity Fair asked if she was the “Next It Girl” in 1998 when she was just 26. But through no fault of her own, that seemingly instant fame led to blowback and heightened expectations that never seemed to be fulfilled. Until now.

Gretchen_Mol_4

The 42-year-old blonde beauty was born in Connecticut and studied acting at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the prestigious William Esper Studio, both in New York City. After work in the traditional training ground of New England summer stock, Mol was spotted by a talent agent and also photographer Davis Powell, which led to a cover on W magazine and a short-lived modeling career, as well as big buzz about her future.

Gretchen_Mol-1

But her publicity always seemed to outstrip her achievements as an actress. Despite solid work in small budget Abel Ferrara films, some nice roles for Woody Allen and good part in the Matt Damon-Ed Norton card sharp caper Rounders (1998), Gretchen never found the broad popular success to break into the upper echelon of A-list actresses. Her lack of career momentum even led to The New York Times coining the term “Vanity Fair Cover Curse”. But she had a good small-scale success in both the stage and film versions of Neil Labute’s The Shape of Things, which seemed to give her renewed confidence.

Gretchen_Mol-2

Finally being taken seriously as an actress and not just another pretty face, she delivered a breakout performance in 2005’s highly-regarded Indie smash, The Notorious Bettie PageHer complex, finely nuanced conception brought the infamous 1950s S&M pinup girl to life as something more than a half-remembered curiosity. With her fresh-faced sex appeal and sly humor and dressed in magnificent period lingerie and Bettie’s trademark dark bangs, Ms. Mol’s doppelgänger performance turned on a whole new generation to Page’s quirky erotic oeuvre, as well as the complex relationship between exploitation and empowerment.

Gretchen_Mol-3

While contributing more quality work alongside Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the throwback Western remake 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and on TV as the female lead in the American version of Life on Mars (2008-9), Gretchen still found time to start a family with husband Kip Williams. This also led to her turning down work that strayed too far afield from her New York home. Despite this proscription, she landed her best and perhaps most important role in HBO’s groundbreaking gangster epic, Boardwalk Empire. Her seemingly sweet but incredibly twisted Gillian Darmody, a sort of Prohibition-era Medea, is a jaw droopingly complex character pulled off with consummate skill and chilling depth. Quite simply, Gillian Darmody is one of the great female anti-heroines in cinema/TV history, a scheming, deceptive monster of the first degree, and Gretchen plays her magnificently. With her work in Bettie Page and Boardwalk Empire, Gretchen served notice that she’s an actress who can hold her own with anyone on the A-list. As she enters her mid-40s as a fully mature artist we could well be looking at one of the great second acts by any American actress. She’s well on her way and my money’s on Mol to pull it off.