A Faster Horse


All the kings horses.

All the kings horses.

(2012) Documentary (Film Rise) Dave Pericak, Tom Barnes, Hau Thau Tang, Hal Sperlich, Gale Halderman, Edsel Ford II, Art Hyde, Jack Telnack, Prakash Patel, Julie Rochner, Kemal Cucic, Frank Davis, Steve Denby, Bob Fria, Carroll Shelby, Arjay Miller, Bob Kreipke, Henry Ford II, Marcy Fisher, John Clor. Directed by David Gelb

Americans love their cars. It’s an affection that borders on obsession with some (and crosses well past the line for others). It’s true that for a fairly significant segment of the population a car is a conveyance, a means of getting from one place to another. It’s a machine and most don’t obsess over their toasters or vacuum cleaners, am I right?

But for many, a car is an extension of themselves, their souls made steel. It isn’t necessarily just a means of getting from one place to another but a style of getting there. For many Americans, the Ford Mustang represents the pinnacle of cars.

The Mustang came into being for a lot of reasons. One was the Edsel, a massive failure that put the Ford Motor Company into a tailspin. When a young Lee Iacocca approached Henry Ford II with the idea of the Mustang as a performance car that was fast, fun and affordable, Ford was at first not impressed; this went against all the established thinking in the automotive industry; cars were then massive monstrosities in which bigger is better and the more metal the better. Innovation was not Job One at Ford back then.

But Iacocca, a master salesman, persisted and eventually Ford grudgingly agreed to give him half the normal seed money for bringing a car to market. Iacocca turned the project to Donald Frey and history was made. The release of the Mustang would be the most successful launch for Ford since the Model A. It continues to be maybe the most well-known model in the line; it certainly has some of the most cache.

When Ford decided to redesign the car (only the fifth in the model’s history) to celebrate the Mustang’s 50th anniversary this year, they turned the project over to Chief Engineer Dave Pericak. Documentary filmmaker David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) was given unprecedented access to Ford’s design labs, testing facilities and production facilities. We become flies on the wall as the new model is designed and slowly shaped into being.

Gelb gives us a great deal of context, showing the Mustang in all its incarnations using car commercials, home movies and iconic clips from movies like Bullitt (whose iconic car chase helped make the Mustang Steve McQueen-cool). He also gives us a sense of how important the car is to the American self-image. In many ways the Mustang symbolizes American freedom, American strength and American individualism.

The distinctive engine sound of the Mustang is used to great effect here, merging with the Philip Glass-like score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans to make an eclectic noise. By the time the movie finishes up you’re bound to have an emotional reaction – in fact Pericak discusses the emotional response to the release of the car at length.

It is mind-boggling at how much has to be done for a car to make it from the drawing board to the dealership, but you get a sense of it here and of the pressure that the Chief Engineer is under. Ford invested an enormous amount of money to make this car at a time when America was in its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and car companies were being bailed out by the U.S. government. Even now, seven years later, Detroit is still suffering but Ford is one of the shining lights in the automotive industry, thanks largely to the success of the new Mustang.

Even those who don’t love cars – and I’m one of those – will find this a fascinating film. I can only imagine those who are car enthusiasts will find this to be catnip. Either way, this is a terrific documentary that is definitely worth your time to seek out and view.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what it takes to get a car from concept to market. Underscores the importance of the Mustang to the American psyche.
REASONS TO STAY: Bogs down a little bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Nothing really that should disturb anyone.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The 2015 Mustang is, as of this writing, a finalist for Car of the Year from Motor Trend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THEATERS: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How It’s Made
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sleeping With Other People

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12 Years a Slave


Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

(2013) Historical Biography (Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupito Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Garret Dillahunt, Isiah Jackson, Dwight Henry, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhane Wallis, Devyn A. Tyler, Willo Jean-Baptiste, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Ashley Dyke. Directed by Steve McQueen

The question we sometimes have to ask about a movie depicting a horrible epoch in human history is why. Why should it be made? After all, it’s not exactly a secret that slavery was a terrible, shameful practice. But do we need to be reminded of that?

I believe that we do. In the same way movies like Schindler’s List reminds us of the holocaust, or Hotel Rwanda reminds us of the horrors of genocide, we need to remind ourselves periodically of the depths of inhumanity that man practices upon other men. We need to be reminded as Nicol Williamson once accurately (albeit bombastically) said in Excalibur that it is the doom of men that they forget.

Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in Saratoga, New York in 1841. While he is a black man, he is nonetheless freed and is well-known as a magnificent violinist but also a hard-working carpenter. His wife Anne (Scott) is highly respected as a great cook. They have beautiful children and as African-Americans in the mid-19th century go, a pretty wonderful life.

Then, he is approached by a couple of men calling themselves Hamilton (Killam) and Brown (McNairy) who represent themselves as entertainers in need of an accompanying musician. They are going as far south as Washington, DC. The money is good and the company congenial so Northup agrees to lend his services.

He awakens in chains in a slave market. Gone are his clothes, his papers identifying him as a free man and even his name – he is to be called Platt now. He is sold by the dealer (Giamatti) to Ford (Cumberbatch) who runs a sugar cane plantation near New Orleans. There he goes with the disconsolate Eliza (Oduye) who has been separated from her children. However, Northup gets into a fight with the cruel and barbarous carpenter Tibeats (Dano) who for some reason has it out for Solomon (possibly because Northup was a better carpenter) and for the safety of his slave and of his plantation, the kindly Ford is forced to sell Platt to the cruel Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who runs a cotton plantation.

Epps expects 200 pounds of cotton to be picked by each one; those who fail are lashed cruelly. The best cotton picker is Patsy (Nyong’o) who does three times what the burly men of the plantation can do. Epps has taken an unhealthy sexual interest in her which infuriates his wife (Paulson) who visits cruelties and mutilations upon Patsy. Solomon for his part is keeping his head down low, making sure nobody knows that he can read and write. When Solomon meets an itinerant Canadian carpenter (Pitt), he knows his last chance to get word to those in the North of his whereabouts may be staring him in the face.

Based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Northup, I’m told the film follows the book pretty closely – McQueen insisted on it. While I can’t personally vouch for that, I can say that this is an incredible story told with as much authenticity as the filmmakers can muster. That this is a British production is somewhat ironic that it takes a foreign eye to shed light on an American disgrace.

There is a good deal of brutality. When slaves get whipped, pieces of flesh fly from their back and the resulting cuts are hideous to behold. It’s not easy to watch but this was the reality of what happened. Too often Hollywood portrays a whipping as a grunting actor, jaw heroically clenched against the pain as lines of red appear on his back. In reality, whippings were horrid affairs with a good deal of screaming and bloodshed. To his credit, McQueen doesn’t turn the eyes of the camera away and we see the brutality in unflinching detail.

Ejiofor has long been one of those actors who has been patiently waiting the right role. He’s finally found his. One of the best actors you’ve never heard of out there, he plays Solomon with dignity, with fear and with humanity. Solomon is a smart guy and occasionally able to manipulate Epps but his own inner fire gets him into trouble sometimes. He is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January and is an early favorite to win it.

Fassbender has been busy of late and might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his layered and nuanced performance as Epps. Certainly Epps is a cruel and vicious master, but he is also henpecked by his wife to a certain degree and a slave to his own lust for Patsy. Epps could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of a plantation owner; yes, there is evil here but it isn’t cartoon evil but the evil that slavery creates in the slaveowners.

Nyong’o is a newcomer but her performance as Patsy may bring her the kind of notice new actresses dream of. Patsy is the face of despair in the film and Nyong’o handles it with a certain dignity that at once is moving and disturbing. When the despair overwhelms her and she begs Platt to end her misery, one wonders how many slaves took that road off the plantations. Probably many more than we realize – when hope is dead, the will to live generally dies with it.

This is a movie that is certain to be considered for Oscar gold this year and is going to make a lot of year-end top ten lists. While it may be considered an education about slavery, I see it more as a metaphor for the continued inhumanity that we enforce on others. The message here isn’t that slavery is  bad; I’m pretty sure we all get that. It’s how we treat each other today and how our ability to enslave others has informed that treatment that makes this movie so important. While I would hesitate to bring small children to see this, I think parents should bring their teens. Opening the eyes of a younger generation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Impeccably acted by Ejiofor and Fassbender. A living breathing testament to the horrors of slavery.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and brutality can be overwhelming at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and scenes of torture and cruelty. There is also some nudity and sexuality, as well as a few graphic images that may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henry and Wallis both co-starred previously in Beasts of the Southern Wild, also distributed by Fox Searchlight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 97/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amistad

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Italian for Beginners

Shame


Shame

Michael Fassbender reacts when he discovers his mother is attending the premiere for the film.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen

 

Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.

Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.

But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.

His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.

Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.

Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.

Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.

There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?

This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.

Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.

FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Duchess

Tower Heist


Tower Heist

Ben Stiller brings up the Nutty Professor movies even though it's in Eddie Murphy's contract that nobody mentions them.

(2011) Caper Comedy (Universal) Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Tea Leoni, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe, Judd Hirsch, Michael Pena, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Juan Carlos Hernandez, Zeljko Ivanek, Peter Van Wagner. Directed by Brett Ratner

It goes without saying that the new villains in the movies, reflecting our perilous economic times, are financiers. Most of us hold them responsible to a large degree for the woes we find ourselves in. Wall street is the new mad scientist.

Josh Kovacs (Stiller) works as the building manager for one of the most exclusive residences in Manhattan and thus one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. It is the home of the hoi polloi, the high and mighty – the movers and shakers of New York. He heads a staff that is renowned for their attentiveness and attention to detail.

Among the residents in the building one of the most famous is Arthur Shaw (Alda), a man who has managed the portfolios of nations. He is one of the world’s most respected financial minds, someone who understands the markets better than anyone alive. When doorman Lester (Henderson) opens the door for him, there’s just a little bit more deferential treatment for Mr. Shaw who is as down to earth as they come – playing online chess with Josh, who went to the same public school in Astoria that Shaw did.

A sharp-eyed Josh notices, while in security chief Manuel’s (Hernandez) office what appears to be a kidnap attempt on Mr. Shaw. He makes a heroic effort to rescue him only to be clotheslined by an attractive woman, who turns out to be FBI agent Claire Denham (Leoni). It also turns out that the kidnapping is actually Shaw trying to escape arrest. It turns out that Shaw has swindled all of his clients out of the money they gave him to invest and that money is all gone. It turns out that Josh had given the employees of the Tower’s pension fund over to Shaw to manage and that money is all gone too.

This is devastating for some. Charlie (Affleck) the concierge is about to have a baby. Miss Iovenko (Arianda) is studying to pass the bar. Enrique (Pena) just started working there. But it is most devastating for Lester, who was about ready to retire and also had given his life savings – about $70K – to Mr. Shaw to invest and was left with nothing, meaning retirement wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Disconsolate, he attempts to walk out in front of a train and is saved by off-duty police officers.

Josh doesn’t want to believe that his friend Mr. Shaw is a crook, but when he visits him to tell the house-arrested Shaw what has befallen Lester, it becomes clear that Shaw’s friendly man-of-the-people front was a facade. It also becomes just as clear that the money that the employees of the Tower have all been counting on is gone forever. However, Agent Denham lets slip that guys like Shaw always have a cash safety net available for emergencies and that they haven’t found Shaw’s yet. Maybe Josh can steal back what was stolen from he and his associates.

However, Josh isn’t a thief, as Charlie correctly points out. However, Josh knows someone who is – streetwise Slide (Murphy), a career criminal who lives down the street from Josh. Add the recently evicted Mr. Fitzhugh (Broderick) and Jamaican maid (and daughter of a safecracker) Odessa (Sidibe) and you’ve got yourself a gang. However can these amateurs make their way past the most sophisticated security system in New York and the ever-watchful eye of the FBI to get themselves a little payback?

It will probably not surprise anyone who sees this movie to know that it shares a writer with the Oceans 11 series. It has that element of camaraderie among thieves, the same kind of snappy dialogue. It does have some star power but after Stiller and Murphy it falls off somewhat, although there are some pretty good performances here.

The main one is Murphy, who after decades of doing forgettable family comedies finally goes back to the kind of role that made him a star, one that channels Axel Foley, Billy Ray Valentine and Reggie Hammond. This is not quite up to those standards, but it is his best role in years. He nails it as well, giving it that fast-talking con-artist veneer as well as that kind of bad boy ladies man that Murphy perfected 20 years ago and that comedians like Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker have all been channeling since then.

Alda, who was playing Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH” at about the same time plays maybe the nastiest villain of his career. Shaw is an arrogant, smug bastard who while obviously modeled on Bernie Madoff has a little bit of Leona Helmsley thrown in for good measure. It’s a delicious role and should go down as one of the most memorable movie villains of 2011.

Stiller is a bit of a cipher. He is likable enough but I think that the part would have been better with someone for whom larcenous behavior might have been more easily acceptable. Stiller seems better suited for characters who need less charisma.

Ratner excels in making mindless entertainment pieces and he does so here. There’s nothing much to think about and veteran moviegoers are for sure going to be able to figure out important plot twists (such as where Shaw’s money is actually hidden) well before the reveals. However, the cast is enormously appealing (the sight of Broderick reaching out of an open window to pull in their loot but afraid to move is one of the better moments in the movie) and the plot easy enough to follow. Don’t try to think too much about some of the plot holes and you’ll find this a pleasant enough movie, not a game changer by any means but a solidly entertaining diversion. Some critics will make it seem like that’s a failure but for my money that’s a big win for the audience.

REASONS TO GO: Fine entertainment. Eddie Murphy returns to form and Alda is a fine villain.

REASONS TO STAY: A little too predictable in the plot points. Nothing really new here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and a smidge of sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Trump Tower in Manhattan was used as the stand-in for the Tower in the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The New York City vistas and the parade segment should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Due Date

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.

Hunger


Hunger

Bobby Sands seeks counsel from a priest in the most compelling scene from Hunger.

(IFC) Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Liam Cunningham, Dennis McCambridge, Liam McMahan, Laine Megaw. Directed by Steve McQueen

Change doesn’t always come through discussion and negotiation. Sometimes, when all else fails, one must risk everything to effect meaningful change.

Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is a member of the Irish Republican Army who was imprisoned in Long Kesh, the prison the British used primarily to house members of the IRA. He and his fellow Irishmen in the prison are protesting prison conditions by refusing to shave or bathe. They yearn to be recognized as political prisoners, which they consider themselves to be, by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, who considers them nothing more than common criminals.

The prisoners are brutally beaten and forced to shave, particularly by Lohan, a guard (Graham) who seems conflicted by his duties. It is clear their tactics aren’t working. Sands decides to go on a hunger strike, a massive one involving all the prisoners until their cause is recognized. There had been a previous hunger strike that had been unsuccessful but Sands felt it was because the strikers had never been prepared to actually take that strike to its logical conclusion; it was more of a protest than a negotiation tactic.

He argues the point with a particularly level-headed Catholic Priest (Cunningham), a realist with a world view that is remarkably logical. The priest argues the ineffectiveness of the tactic as opposed to its morality; never once does he mention the word “sin.” It’s a compelling scene, shot in one, continuous take, 17 minutes worth. It is one of the longest continuous shots in the history of film and is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Sands would refuse food for 66 days and suffered horrifying physical debilitation; kidney failure, ulcerating sores, weakness. He eventually died and became a martyr to the Irish Republican cause, a position he continues to occupy 28 years after the events of the strike.

McQueen is careful not to over-politicize the movie but it is clear his sympathies lie more with the prisoners than the Thatcher government. McQueen concentrates on prison conditions rather than on the actions that got the prisoners there in the first place which tends to make the men more sympathetic than they might have been. Nonetheless it is a compelling story, a story of will and absolute belief in a cause.

McQueen doesn’t tell this story in a conventional manner. Sands hardly appears at all until nearly halfway through the film when he decides to initiate the strike. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this – it’s clear McQueen is a gifted filmmaker. My only issue is that he has a tendency to use imagery as an end rather than a means; flocks of birds which quite obviously symbolize freedom appear often. I don’t mind a symbol; I just object to being hit in the face with it as if I couldn’t figure it out on my own.

The acting is very solid, but Fassbender and Cunningham elevate. Their scene together may be one of the best I’ve seen this year. Most of the cast aren’t well-known here in the States, but they do some very credible work in difficult circumstances.

Sands is implacable in his dedication to his cause, as fanatics are. He is willing to lead his fellow prisoners to death in order to get his point across, as indeed he did. Did he get the concessions he wanted? History tells us for the most part he did. Although the prisoners of Long Kesh were never formally recognized by the Thatcher government as political prisoners, they were in fact treated that way. In the end, the Sinn Fein would be recognized as a legitimate political entity and Ireland would eventually see peace.

The figure of Bobby Sands still looms large in the Irish psyche and to a certain extent, as a polarizing force. Some see him as a hero and a martyr while others see him as a criminal and a coward. McQueen clearly sees him as the former. For my part, I admire his dedication to the cause. However, that is tempered by my discomfort with the tactics of the IRA, who used bombs and guns to get their point across, often on innocent people. I simply can’t condone it, although there are many who feel that they were fully justified in what they did. I don’t know how I would have felt living a Catholic in Belfast in that time; perhaps I would have seen things differently. Still, this is a story that should be told and here, it is told tolerably well. While I don’t ever get the impression that I knew who the man Bobby Sands was from watching this film, I at least get a sense of what he went through at the end of his life.

WHY RENT THIS: A no punches pulled, no holds barred look at the final six weeks of IRA hunger strike organizer Bobby Sands’ life. The scene between Fassbender and Cunningham is the highlight of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: McQueen’s gratuitous use of flocking birds got to be annoying and unnecessary. “Look Ma, I’m directing.” McQueen’s sympathies clearly lie with the IRA, which may be difficult for some to accept.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of male frontal nudity, depictions of graphic prison brutality as well as the effects of starvation. Not for the squeamish in any way, shape or form.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Liam Cunningham roomed with Michael Fassbender prior to filming in order to practice their 17 minute scene together, knowing it would be filmed in one continuous shot. Even though they often practiced the scene five to ten times a day for weeks, it still took four takes to get the scene right.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Prestige