Friday Fun Flick: A Shock to the System

A Shock to the System - title card

A Shock to the System (1990) made me fall in love with Michael Caine as an actor.  Roger Ebert:

Caine is a splendid movie actor, a consummate professional who is fun to watch in any film, because there is always a layer of irony and fun right there below the surface.  That makes him especially entertaining as a villain; his charm makes his sins seem permissible, or at least understandable.  He rarely plays villains we hate.  More often, we want him to get away with his sins.  Since the sins he commits in “A Shock to the System” are wicked ones, that sets up a nice tension inside the movie.  We see things from his point of view, we are invited to identify with him and yet when the Connecticut detective comes calling, we think it’s about time.

Ebert gave the film 3 of 4 stars without citing any deficiencies.  This is a better movie than that.  Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman gave an “A” rating:

At the beginning of the exhilarating corporate satire A Shock to the System, the voice of Michael Caine comes on the sound track, soothing and seducing us as it has so many times before.  That voice, with its halting cockney sparkle, its tones of ironic civility, is one of the most delicious sounds in movies, as unmistakable a comic signature as Chaplin’s bowlegged shuffle.  Once again, Michael Caine is playing a A Shock to the System - Caine on phonesneak, a rogue, and drawing the audience into a conspiracy with him-the way he did in Alfie (1966), the movie that made him a star, and then 20 years later in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Only this time, Caine’s character is going to go farther- much farther. A Shock to the System is a black comedy played very, very close to the bone.  Written by Andrew Klavan, and directed by the veteran independent filmmaker Jan Egleson, it’s a head-on satire of greed and power that’s also one of the most enticingly intimate portraits of American corporate life ever put on-screen.

Rounding out Caine’s brilliant performance is excellent support by Swoosie Kurtz, Elizabeth McGovern, Peter Riegert, and Will Patton as the tenacious detective.  A trailer is not available that even comes close to doing this movie justice, so you’ll just have to trust me that you’ll like it.  A Shock to the System is available on Hulu, or hunt down a DVD.   This is one of those little movies that, despite featuring a big star in the leading role, and being absolutely terrific fun, has, sadly, so easily slipped under the floorboards, relegated to the ashcan of cinematic history.  9/10

And one more thing: bippity, boppity, BOO!

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Comparison Notes (all recommended): American Psycho, Glengarry Glen Ross, Edmond, Wall Street

Michael Caine and Peter Riegert

Michael Caine and Peter Riegert

The Age of Antiquity

IT’S FUNNY HOW sometimes movies which have something in common arrive in bunches, as I’ve written about before [see post on Captain Phillips].  And so the time has come for big spectacles based in the Mediterranean region 2000+ years ago: PompeiiNoahSon of God and the 300 sequel are all being released within a few weeks of one-another.  Coincidence?  I think not.  I’ve got no issue with this, it’s just an observation.  Now let’s get ready for lots of over-the-top gory bloodshed!

Cinematic Greats: Chariots of Fire

Chariots of Fire poster - largeINVESTIGATING THE OLYMPIC theme music, I found a Smithsonian article which explains the muddled mess quite nicely.  In a nutshell, the primary theme Americans identify with the Olympics is Leo Arnaud’s “Bugler’s Dream”, not composed by John Williams, who however added to “Bugler’s Dream” with his own original composition for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Olympics - Theme Music Article SmithsonianOutside of the U.S., the music most associated with the Olympics is the Chariots of Fire theme music by Vangelis.  That’s too bad for foreigners, because the American take is grand, spirited music that I have for most of my life strongly associated with the Olympic games — and it is so completely apt.  The Chariots of Fire music is also beautiful and spirited, and I associate it too with the Olympics — but only in a secondary manner by way of the movie.  I am happy as an American to be able to embrace both pieces of music.

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Looking into the Olympic music caused me to reflect on Chariots of Fire, a superbly great movie.  Roger Ebert gave his highest rating:

This is strange. I have no interest in running and am not a partisan in the British class system. Then why should I have been so deeply moved by “Chariots of Fire,” a British film that has running and class as its subjects? I’ve toyed with that question since I first saw this remarkable film in May 1981 at the Cannes Film Festival, and I believe the answer is rather simple: Like many great films, “Chariots of Fire” takes its nominal subjects as occasions for much larger statements about human nature.

Indeed.  Among all the remarkable aspects of this movie is its score, the brilliant collection by Vangelis.  Beyond the well-known main theme, the entire soundtrack is thoroughly modern, yet works magically as a defining theme perfectly in harmony with the period story.  I realize Chariots of Fire is a well-known and highly regarded film, having won four Oscars including Best Picture.  But that does not preclude a mention here: it is highly recommended, essential viewing.

Chariots of Fire - trailer

Trailer – IMDb

Film Brief: The Fourth Kind

The Fourth Kind - posterThe Fourth Kind (2009) begins with Milla Jovovich introducing herself as “the actress Milla Jovovich,” and then pursues the wretched conceit of showing supposed “actual” footage of events in split-screen with the the re-enacted events.  This conceit is propagated throughout the film, either because the filmmakers were trying to shore up this complete shambles of a movie, or because the director was so incompetent that he thought it would be some sort of avant-garde technique befitting the high drama on display.

In any case, this is a complete waste of time.  What gets me, though, is all the hype around it at the time of release, and issues around its streaming availability, as if The Fourth Kind were God’s greatest gift to horror and sci-fi fans everywhere.  2/10

Mr. Death Goes to Washington

Mr. Death - poster

Made by documentary maestro Errol Morris, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) is about as good as it gets — and I mean not just for a documentary, but for any movie.  Roger Ebert gave it his highest rating:

Like all of Morris’ films, “Mr. Death” provides us with no comfortable place to stand. We often leave his documentaries not sure if he liked his subjects or was ridiculing them. He doesn’t make it easy for us with simple moral labels. Human beings, he argues, are fearsomely complex and can get their minds around very strange ideas indeed. Sometimes it is possible to hate the sin and love the sinner.

Readers of my blog know I don’t put a tremendous amount of stock in Rotten Tomatoes, but Mr. Death is the only film I can recall with a 100% Tomotometer score.  It is a great and fascinating movie.  Not available via streaming, but highly recommended and worth seeking out.

12 Years a Slave Wins at BAFTA

The BAFTA (British Academy) awards have proven to be a good predictor of the top prize at the Oscars, and are the last major show of the season before Hollywood’s biggest night.  If the correlation holds this year, 12 Years a Slave will win it all.  The importance of BAFTA caused the screaming headline: “BAFTA Awards: ’12 Years a Slave’ Pulls Out Shocking Win” by — shocking only for those in a state of denial or with their heads buried in sand — 12 Years has been racking up all the most important awards.  And that guy is getting paid to be a journalist — shameful.

12 Years a Slave with Cumberbatch

Those who follow my blog know I am rooting for 12 Years, and for two reasons.  The primary reason: it’s easily, clearly, by far the best film of 2013.  But it’s also an important movie — every American should see this — especially every white American.  12 Years, besides being a very great film that deserves to live on for years, is the vehicle by which we may attain an understanding of our country hitherto absent.

Here’s hoping that the Academy seals the deal on March 2nd and drives a large number of people to see this movie who otherwise would not.

New Godfrey Reggio Film: Visitors

Visitors - website image

Yes, there is a reason for the timing of my last post on the groundbreaking movie Koyaanisqatsi: its maker Godfrey Reggio was on Colbert the other night (link here, but be aware that Colbert videos expire over time, so watch expeditiously) promoting his new film Visitors.  The film has a website with screening information and a trailer.  Think of this as more event than movie, akin to an artwork “happening”: it is touring around the nation, to be shown in select cities for only a day.  Visitors promises to be an intense experience.

Cinematic Greats: Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi poster

Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio (1982) was important in my early development as a film enthusiast — along with 2001 and The Right Stuff, it captured my imagination for how great movies could be.  I tried in vain to find the Leonard Maltin review, but this from Mike Garrett will do:

If there is one film which absolutely deserves to be seen on the big screen with stereo surround sound, it is Godfrey Reggio’s remarkable Koyaanisqatsi. This is a totally unconventional film without plot, actors or dialogue, which mesmerises us with time-lapse and slow-motion photography of civilization and nature, presenting our familiar world from an otherworldly perspective. The powerful soundtrack by Philip Glass is as moving as the imagery, and quite integral to the spellbinding effect. Cinematography is by Ron Fricke, who did Baraka in the same style.

Koyaanisqatsi - still Vegas large“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi Indian word for “life out of balance”, and much of the film deals with not just the emergent beauty, but also the discordance of life in the modern world. This is a little overplayed, with not too subtle H-bomb detonations contrasting the many beautiful shots, nevertheless it is a moving and historically important film that you shouldn’t miss if you have an interest in cinema. Or in being entertained, even.

Originally released in 1983, the Nova is showing a new 35mm print, which really is the only way to experience it. I’ll give Leonard Maltin the last word on this: “So rich in beauty and detail that with each viewing it becomes a new and different film. Should be seen in a theatre for maximum impact.” What more could you want from a film?

Growing up with this movie, I never viewed it as “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind,” as Roger Ebert claimed.  I was simply mesmerized by the picture — and that from watching on an old 19 inch Sony Trinitron, either on VHS tape or from broadcasts of it (I believe PBS showed it a couple times).  So forget about all the politics when watching it, just sit back for an audiovisual treat.  It is not available for streaming, but one may purchase the entire Qatsi trilogy on Blu-Ray.  You might be also able to find a DVD at the local library or video shop, and it occasionally is shown at various events.  Koyaanisqatsi is essential viewing and worth hunting down.

What a Beauty!

The Great Beauty - poster large Italian

REGRETTABLY I HAVE NOT SEEN much of Fellini’s great movies, but I did long ago catch a good swath of La Dolce Vita, and its lovely, life-embracing traipse through Rome was brought to mind as I watched The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), Italy’s Oscar-nominated feature film, and a leading contender to win.  Tom Long, The Detroit News:

Sorrentino [the Director] delivers gorgeous images, crazy images, startling and sexy and serene images; it’s a visual bath of sorts — the great beauty is everywhere

Indeed the beauty of Rome is on display, presented in accomplished, lyrical cinematic sequences.  But therein lies a problem with this movie: its strings of storylines, though connected via a central character, feel a little like a series of connected short films.  This is in part due to its use of something seen only in European (generally French) films: The Great Beauty - stillextended intellectual conversations that don’t do a lot to advance the film’s story.  Upon reflection, these discussions are meant to provide as much substance as the film’s action, and that again points to a lack of meat at its core.

But there were extended periods where I loved this film — at times it absolutely soars.  Besides the lovely cinematic bits, I grooved to some of the other sequences, especially the dance-jam at the beginning of the film.  For those of you who haven’t seen a good Italian or French film in a while, The Great Beauty will quench that thirst.  This is a movie you can sink your teeth into — a bath, to use Tom Long’s term — that you can dive into, and then splash around for a while.  There’s a lot to like here, it’s just too bad that a strong plot is not included.  So on balance, 7/10 — which places it just behind This Is the End on my 2013 list.

Now I really must endeavor to catch up on Fellini… and Bergman… and Kurosawa

One final note: If you watch the trailer below and don’t have the urge to immediately run out and see this movie, there’s a disconnect.