Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rushmore (1998)

Rushmore is top of the class.

Director Wes Anderson's follow-up to Bottle Rocket is filled with great characters, fantastic music, a winning story and an incredible debut performance by Jason Schwartzman.


Max Fischer (Schwartzman) is a Grade 10 student at Rushmore Academy. He loves everything about the private school, except his academics. When the film starts, he's meeting with patient principal Dr. Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox). Still struggling with his marks, he's on sudden death academic probation.

"Oh no, not again," says his chapel partner Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble) when he hears the news. Fischer considers his alternatives and parking himself in front of the books isn't one of them.

Fischer is so busy heading, or creating, school clubs from lacrosse and yearbook to stamp and coin to beekeeping, his marks are awful.

He's further distracted when he meets Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), the school's new Grade 1 teacher. She's attached to Rushmore because her late husband was a graduate. Fischer, who's never spent much time chasing the ladies, is in love.

But Herman Blume (Bill Murray), the parent of two boys who attend Rushmore, is also keen on winning Cross's affections. He's a successful and rich businessman, but his wife is fooling around with a younger man and he loathes his sons.

Fischer and Blume's initial friendship -- Blume has a soft spot for Fischer's ambitious goals, Fischer admires Blume's rooting for the underdog -- goes sour when the younger suitor learns of his older friend's pursuit of Cross.

A teenage boy's pursuit of an older teacher may make some unease, but Anderson (who co-wrote the script with Owen Wilson) depicts their relationship well. She treats Max kindly, but is never seriously interested in a romance with the teenager. Max has lessons to learn about life and love.


What a treat it is to see Murray shine in the roll of steel boss Blume. He's impressed me with a string of strong performances in films such as Quick Change, Groundhog Day and Ed Wood. But Rushmore could be his best work yet.

Rushmore is filled with great supporting characters too including Fischer's chapel partner, Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble), Max's father Bert (Seymour Cassel) and Cox. There are no dumb adults here. Instead, they're supportive, inspired or frustrated with Fischer.
Schwartzman shines in his first film role. What a find.

Rushmore is impressive too with everyone from The Who and John Lennon to Yves Montand and The Kinks featured on the soundtrack. Instrumental pieces by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh are also a delight.

If there was any justice in the cinematic world, Rushmore would have been a huge moneymaker. But smart movies sometimes don't translate into big audiences. That's too bad because Rushmore is a great film.

Rating: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Bill Murray won best supporting actor awards from National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle Award. He was nominated for a Golden Globe. Rushmore didn't receive any Academy Award nominations. Pity. Several cast members have appeared in other films by Wes Anderson including Seymour Cassel (The Royal Tenembaums), Brian Cox (Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Bill Murray (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Co-screenwriter Owen Wilson appeared in Bottle Rocket.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar picks (2011)

Here's a tough one.

Try and pick the winners for the major prizes at this year's Oscars.

2010 was a fantastic 12-month span for film-goers with numerous top notch films released.

Here are my picks for the top six prizes.


Leading actor: Colin Firth (The King's Speech)

Supporting actor: Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

Leading actress: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Supporting actress: Amy Adams (The Fighter)

Best director: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)

Best picture: The King's Speech

Notice a trend here?


Here's why I'm predicting a landslide of awards for The King's Speech.

It has numerous strengths to draw on come Oscar night. The King's Speech is based on a true story about events leading up to the Second World War. The drama, much like The Social Network (Two-Disc Collector's Edition), highlights the importance of a new communication device - in this case, the radio.

And, while Mark Zuckerberg comes off looking awfully bad in The Social Network, King George VI triumphs over his stuttering and leads his nation into the Second World War. How's that for inspirational?

I've chosen Winter's Bone for adapted screenplay in my office Oscar pool mainly because I think Oscar voters will want to give some recognition to this drama starring Jennifer Lawrence and Isaiah Stone.

But I'm still rooting for True Grit and its beautiful script. Don't see this Coen brothers film for the action. It is brief and intense. Instead, relish in how its characters speak. What a real treat.


I'll tap Inception for several technical awards including cinematography, sound editing and visual effects.

Other picks: Toy Story 3 for animated feature (but no nod for the very funny Despicable Me (Single-Disc Edition), pity, Biutiful for foreign language film and If I Rise (127 Hours) for original song.

What are your picks?

Watch the Oscars Feb. 27 at 8 p.m. Eastern on ABC.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hell Is For Heroes (1962)

Here's a taut, gritty war film with a solid cast and some neat stunt casting.

Hell Is For Heroes came out a year before one of the greatest war films ever made, The Great Escape.

American actors Steve McQueen and James Coburn appeared in both releases as well as The Magnificent Seven.

McQueen plays much the same character - a rebel - but with a much darker edge. Note the butcher knife he packs as part of his kit.


Here, McQueen is Private Reese, a soldier decorated for his bravery on the battlefied. But, either through struggling with the stress of combat or just not able to handle authority, he gets reprimanded for his actions behind the lines.

His latest posting reunites him with Sgt. Pike (Fess Parker). The pair served together in North Africa. Pike knows what his comrade can do on the battlefield and cuts him a little slack for his behaviour away from the front line.


Pike's men think they're heading back home when wrapping up their furlough in France in 1944. But, they're ordered to return to combat. Worse, only a small number are left to defend part of the American line against a larger German force. About a half-dozen men will be on their own for a day, two or maybe more.

Here's where things get interesting.

The GIs cook up ways to make the Germans think there's more American soliders defending the area.

A jeep and the mechanical talents of Cpl. Henshaw (Coburn) are pressed into service. A lost clerk, Pvt. Driscoll (Bob Newhart), shows up. Newhart broke through with audiences in the early 1960s as a comic who wrote clever one-way phone conversations in comedy clubs. What endeared him to audiences is pressed into service here. It's some comic relief in an otherwise tense film.

Reese knows the Germans will eventually find out just how few Americans are in the area. He decides to take out a dominating machine gun tucked inside a concrete pillbox to help prevent an overwhelming attack.

With much of the film shot during the night, director Don Siegel brings to life several intense combat sequences. The violence isn't as graphic as Saving Private Ryan, but many of these soldiers don't just fall over and die.

Most riveting is the death of one of the American soldiers. The scene is shot from above as he's carried to possible medical help.


Pop singer Bobby Darin has a strong supporting role as Pvt. Corby, a scrounger who is eager to make a good from loot he's taken for his own use.

My only caveat is the stock footage used in a couple of scenes. That detracts from what is otherwise a strong Second World War film.

Robert Pirosh, who helped write the screenplay, was the series developer of Combat, an American war series starring the late Vic Morrow that aired from 1963 to 1967.

I stumbled upon this film in a bargain rack at a music store. It was well worth the $5 purchase price.

McQueen, who already appeared in The Blog and The Magnificient Seven, would see his star rise even higher in the 1960s with Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair. But boy, he is scary good in Hell Is For Heroes.

Rating: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Henry Guardino (Sgt. Larkin) worked with another screen icon, Clint Eastwood, in Dirty Harry and The Enforcer. Hell Is For Heroes was Newhart's film debut after starring in The Bob Newhart Show television series in 1961. Nick Adams (Homer Janeczek) appeared in two episodes of Combat! Pirosh was also a contributing writer on The Wizard of Oz. Fellow co-screenwriter Richard Carr penned scripts for several television series including Batman, Rawhide, Charlie's Angels, The Waltons, Wonder Woman and Six Million Dollar Man. Fess Parker starred as Davy Crockett in the hit television show from the 1950s. Read the Wikipedia posting of Hell Is For Heroes for interesting information about the film's production.

Marshall Torrill's Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel includes four pages about the film's production. Interesting facts from this biography include:

* McQueen clashed with director Robert Pirosh, who also wrote the film's script. Result: Pirosh was turfed and replaced with Don Siegel.

* Hell is for Heroes was shot in Redding, Calif., where temperatures hit as high as 117 F during filming.

* Director Stanley Kubrick called Hell is for Heroes "the best portrayal of a solitary soldier I have ever seen."

Two albums I enjoy listening to with war-related songs are from Genesis (Calling All Stations) and Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms).

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ghost World (2001)

Teen films used to haunt this movie-goer. Thank goodness for Ghost World.

Hey, I was in high school in the 1980s when there was plenty of dreck about high school students playing at the cinema. Releases like Private School, Spring Break and Getting It On were short on brains, but boasted plenty of nudity. Ho-hum. Director John Hughes was a rare bright light with a string of efforts, such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off, that portrayed teenagers as real, living beings with brains.


Efforts like Gregory's Girl, the brilliant Rushmore and, yes, Ghost World, offer a much different take on teens. The scripts are entertaining, the acting is solid and the soundtracks quirky. An extra on Ghost World's DVD is a slice of Indian rock and roll taken from a 1965 film. Very cool.

Ghost World is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Clowes. He helped write the script with director Terry Zwigoff.

Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are life-long friends who've just graduated from high school. Their sharp, caustic barbs target just about every single one of their classmates. Both are definitely outside of their peer group. Approach this pair at your own risk.


Enid is an artist who enjoys drawing strangers and following them around. She dresses in funky fashions. We don't get to learn as much about Rebecca, except she has a little more focus on what she wants to do post-graduation.

The pair lure Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a loner who collects old blues records and wonders when, or if, he'll ever meet the right woman.

The more Enid learns about Seymour, the more she likes him despite a healthy age difference between the two.

But the promise of their relationship is threatened by another woman. Enid faces challenges in her summer school art class and her father's decision to again dating a woman she absolutely loathes. Everything is changing in her life. Enid is not quite sure what to do.

Ghost World works because of great performances, a string of eccentric characters in brief appearances and some fine work by Birch in the lead role.

Two of my favourite scenes: a man asks a Masterpiece Video employee for help finding one of the greatest international films ever made. The clerk has no clue what the customer wants to see. Wait for the film he finds for him instead.

The film's opening graduation scene is also a hoot with a valedictory speech followed by a very bizarre musical number.


It's too bad Bob Balaban, who appears as Enid's father, is given so little to work with. He's a treat to watch in several films from Christopher Guest and company including A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. Illeana Douglas is great as a spacey art teacher.

Watch for the late Brad Renfro in a supporting role as Josh, a tormented convenience store worker and rare friend of Enid and Rebecca.

Rating: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Ghost World was director Terry Zwigoff's first feature film. He previously directed two documentaries, Louie Bluie (1985) and Crumb (1994). Ghost World earned two Golden Globe nominations for best actress (Birch) and supporting actor (Buscemi) and an Academy Award nod for best adapted screenplay. Was Seymour partly based on Zwigoff? The director, like Seymour collects old 78s. Louie Bluie was inspired by his finding a rare blues recording by Howard Armstrong. Birch appeared in American Beauty. Johansson appeared in Home Alone III. Douglas earned credits in several films by Martin Scorsese including Cape Fear and Goodfellas.

Ghost World, 2001, 111 minutes. Cast: Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas, Steve Buscemi.