N

Nick and Norah PhotoNick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

When a movie has as its basis such an incredible novel as Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, there should be no way that it could fail, yet this insipid teen comedy manages to toss aside all of the best stuff from the novel, including, amazingly, some of the best comedy.  It changes the course of events and ends without a single note of the beauty that gave the book such raw power.


Norma Rae 04Norma Rae

Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away.  Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.


North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreNorth by Northwest

Mistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.


Notorious 03Notorious

The sexiest and most mature of all Alfred Hitchcock’s films, Notorious is also one of his most suspenseful movies.  It’s a torchy love story set among dangerous ex-Nazis in Rio de Janeiro, with Ingrid Bergman putting her life in danger to prove to the American agent she loves that she has become an honest woman.  Beautifully shot in black and white, all of Hitchcock’s mastery drives a story that is thrilling right up to the end.

Fargo

Fargo Paul BunyanAlfred Hitchcock would have liked this 1996 Joel Coen and Ethan Coen quirky thriller that contains so much comedy it transcends genres.  It borrows a number of techniques from the master of thriller movies, including a clever McGuffin, a villain with empathy, horrific incidents that are hilarious, and a tremendous environmental atmosphere.

The following review contains plot spoilers!

Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is caught in a deep financial bind during the winter of 1987 and hatches a scheme to hire two thugs, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) so that her wealthy father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) will pay enough money to pay off the kidnappers and leave him high and dry financially.  At the same time, he has been working on a real estate deal that would leave him wealthy enough to quit the car business altogether.  He has been pitching this scheme to his father-in-law hoping that the man will loan him $750,000 to complete the deal.

Fargo William MacyHe drives to Fargo to give the prospective kidnappers a 1987 Oldsmobile Ciera to cement the deal, passing through the hamlet of Brainerd, Minnesota, home of Paul Bunyan.  Returning to Minneapolis, Jerry is shocked to find that Wade is actually interested in the real estate deal, so he hastily tries to contact the kidnappers to cancel the deal, but they are already on the road to the Twin Cities.  In a meeting with Wade and his financial officer, Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg), Jerry finds that they only want to pay him a finder’s fee and will not loan him the $750,000.  Although Jean puts of nominal resistance, Carl and Gaear wrap her up in a shower curtain (there are several reverential Psycho moments) and head back to Fargo.  When Jerry finds Jean missing, he tells Wade that the kidnappers want one million dollars for her return, thinking he can get the money for the real estate deal, but that the kidnappers will only deal with him.

Fargo Steve BuscemiOutside Brainerd, Carl and Gaear get stopped by a state patrolman because Carl has forgotten to put tags on the Ciera.  While he attempts to smooth things over with the officer, Jean moans under the shower curtain in the back seat and the trooper asks them to exit the vehicle.  On impulse, Gaear grabs the officer and shoots him in the head.  He tells Carl to move the body off the highway and while Carl is trying to drag the dead man out of the way, a car happens by and two people witness it.  Gaear puts the Ciera in gear, chases down the witnesses and shoots both of them after their car has flipped into a field.

Fargo Frances McDormandBrainerd Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is awakened in the early morning hours by her deputies who need her at the scene of the triple homicide.  Her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch), faithfully fixes his seven-month pregnant wife breakfast, jumps her patrol car, and sends her off.  Marge quickly figures out exactly what happens and launches an investigation that leads her to the Blue Ox Motel where the two men stayed on their way to Minneapolis.  She interviews the two girls who bedded the men and follows up on several phone calls made to Jerry’s mechanic, Shep Proudfoot (Steve Reevis) who had set the deal up for Jerry.  Following up this lead, she goes to Minneapolis only to find that Shep has disappeared.  She interviews an extremely nervous Jerry, ultimately growing suspicious of him.

Jerry’s plans are derailed when Wade takes the money and heads for a rooftop parking lot to meet Carl.  Jerry follows, but Carl gets annoyed by Wade and shoots him.  Wade gets in one shot that goes through Carl’s jaw.  Further annoyed, Carl empties his gun into Wade’s body and runs with the money, shooting the parking lot attendant on the way out.  Stopping on a lonely highway, he looks into the bag and discovers a million dollars.  He takes out enough to account for the original small ransom that Jerry had told him about and buries the bag in the snow along a fence, marking the spot with his ice scraper.

Thinking that Jerry may have lied to her, Marge goes back to the dealership, but Jerry storms out and disappears, so she puts him on the radar for the state police.  When Carl returns to their Moose Lake hideout, he finds that Gaear has killed Jean.  He gives the man his half of the money, but Gaear is upset that they were also supposed to divide the Ciera.  Carl yells at him, but on his way out, Gaear kills him, too.  A tip leads Marge to Moose Lake where she discovers Gaear feeding Carl’s body into a wood chipper.  She confronts him and when he tries to run, she wounds him and then arrests him.  On the way in, she adds up the deaths and remarks that the money wasn’t worth it.  Jerry is found at a motel and arrested.

Right from the very beginning of the movie, the atmosphere is stark and it sets up the cold northern winter that is the blanketing background of the movie.  A wash of white fills the camera and only fleetingly do we see Jerry’s car moving through the hazy bleak whiteness.  The cinematography is extraordinary and the use of color is truly dazzling.

The script and the editing are extremely tight, leading to a film that runs only one hour and thirty-eight minutes, yet tells a completely compelling story.  The dialogue is crisp and taut, full of the deep northern dialect that lends a comedic feel from the first time Jerry opens his mouth.  Each scene is so succinct and well written that the story moves inexorably to its conclusion.  There is only one plot element that slows it down: a subplot with an old acquaintance of Marge that makes her think Jerry might be lying.  It takes up more space than it probably warrants, but it is the only detraction from an intricate, well balanced script.

The acting is amazing, beginning with Frances McDormand and William H. Macy.  Although McDormand doesn’t even make an appearance until nearly 30 minutes into the movie, her presence takes it over.  Marge is a pretty simple character and she keeps everything in perspective, casually adding up the elements of the crime while dealing with her pregnancy.  Her Minnesota dialect is pitch perfect and it keeps the comedy always working for the good of the film.  Macy, a relatively unknown character actor before Fargo, is terrific as Jerry, a character that we instinctively don’t like, yet we feel his terror as the situation gets further and further out of hand.  It is a brilliant performance.

All of the supporting actors are great, from Buscemi and Stormare as the kidnappers to Lynch as Marge’s supportive wildlife artist husband, Norm.  Presnell is truly funny as Jean’s father.  Everyone works together to create a wonderful ensemble of acting that all goes back to support the script.

Fargo was amply rewarded with seven Academy Award nominations, with Oscars for Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay for the Coen brothers.  It was also up for Best Picture (Ethan Coen), Director (Joel Coen), Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), and Best Editing (Roderick Jaynes).

It remains the best of a deep and impressive body of work by the Coen brothers.  In spite of the violence, it is a film that can be enjoyed over and over.  It is a classic of American cinema that should have a place in every serious film buff’s collection.  The DVD special edition contains a “making of” featurette, as well as a Charlie Rose interview with the Coens and Frances McDormand.

As I said at the beginning, Hitchcock would have loved this one!

The French Connection

French ConnectionIf you are looking for the meaning of life, this movie is not for you. Indeed, if you are looking for any meaning at all, this is not your movie.  Rather, it is a completely kinetic film.  Directed by William Friedkin, it echoes the French cinema of the 1950’s, which itself echoes the American gangster films of the 1930’s.  It is all movement and action, with practically no dialogue, moving in a steady arc of energy toward a violent ending.

In Marseille, a powerful French drug dealer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) sets up a major deal in the United States by bringing in a famous French television star, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), to be the front. An undercover policeman following him is assassinated by his heavy, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi).  Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two narcotics policemen, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are sick of all their small busts and are looking for a big score.  Noticing that a local small-time hood, Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife Angie (Arlene Farber) are courting the mafia, they begin to tail the couple and find that they are leading a double life, running a small neighborhood deli by day and carousing at night.  As they follow the Bocas around, they see Sal make a connection with Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), a suspected big-time drug trafficker.  From their sources on the street, they find out that the city has been pretty dry, but a big connection is supposed to be arriving soon.  With this information, they convince their boss to wiretap the Bocas and find themselves saddled with Federal involvement, in the form of a man named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who blames Popeye for the loss of a policeman on a different bust.

When the French arrive, they beef up their operation, putting permanent tails on both the Bocas and the French, but Charnier loses Doyle in the subway and flies to Washington to meet with Boca, who tries to stall him because Joel Weinstock is worried about the police. Charnier is determined that the deal will go through on his timetable.  Back in Brooklyn, Nicoli attempts to assassinate Doyle, but misses.  As he roars off on an El, Popeye follows him on the street using an appropriated automobile in a chase that comes off as one of the best ever done in film.  Nicoli loses control of the situation and shoots several operators on the train, then escapes when the train collides with the one in front of it, but Doyle is waiting below.  When Nicoli attempts to flee, Doyle shoots him in the back.

Henri Devereaux has brought his car, a Lincoln, to New York, so Doyle impounds it and they tear it apart looking for the junk, finally finding it in the rocker panels. Replacing it, they put the car back to together and return it to Devereaux, who loans it o Charnier as a part of their deal.  Charnier drives the car to Wards Island where the dope–several hundred pounds of world class heroin–is extracted from the rocker panels and replaced with the cash that Weinstock pays for it.  The dope is hidden in the old factory, but when Charnier attempts to drive back to New York, the bridge has been blocked off by Popeye, Cloudy, and the police.  Charnier returns to the Island, but a shootout follows in which Doyle follows him into an abandoned building and accidentally shoots the Federal agent.  Charnier escapes and most of the hoods get off, but the one innocent man, Devereaux, gets prison time.  Doyle and Russo get reassigned off of the narco squad.  As the French might say, “this is life.”

Any student of chase scenes or the building of tension in a movie can look to The French Connection almost as a textbook because it is done brilliantly.  The kinetic nature of the film won it a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman).  It was nominated, but did not win, other awards, but neglected was the great score by Don Ellis.

For me, though, it just didn’t add up to anything. No real theme is explored, no light is shed on the dreary, meaningless lives of the cops or the dealers.  Hitchcock would have admired the extreme lack of dialogue and the way the tension built, but there is nothing to carry away with you except that life sucks.  I can recommend this movie to film students and to those whose only value in cinema is kinetic energy, but there is no depth.  It is a one hour and forty minute thrill ride, full of action, but with no meaning or real entertainment value whatsoever.

Book Reviews by Author: A – M

Alcott, Luisa MayLuisa May Alcott

(November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888)

Friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau, Ms. Alcott had to work to help support her family, and like Jane Austen before her, she spun stories for her supper. Well known for her one transcendent novel, she also contributed sequels to the well-loved classic.

Little WomenLittle Women Norton Critical Edition

This is the story of four American sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, during and just following the Civil War.  Shepherded by their mother (Marmee), they become friends with their neighbors, Mr. Laurence and his grandson, Teddy (Laurie).  The book follows their lives, as well as various men they become involved with, but the book is concentrated in the person of Jo, the bookish second daughter, who is fifteen at the beginning of the story.


Isaac Asimov

Foundation


Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Mansfield Park

Sanditon and Other Stories


Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre


Truman Capote

In Cold Blood


Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game


Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs of Distant Earth


Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist


Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games


Deborah Kay Davies

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful


Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time


Nicholas Evans

The Horse Whisperer


John Fowles

The Collector


Karen Hesse

Out of the Dust


Barbara Holland

Katharine Hepburn


Katelan Janke

Survival in the Storm:

The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards


Stephanie Kallos

Broken for You


Rebecca Kanner

The Sinners and the Sea


Jack Kerouac

On The Road


Barbara Kingsolver

Animal Dreams


Ron Koertge

Stoner & Spaz


Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird


Billie Letts

Where The Heart Is


Anne McCaffrey

An Introduction to the World of Pern

Dragonsdawn

The Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy

Dragonflight

Dragonquest

The White Dragon


The Harper Hall Trilogy

Dragonsong

Dragonsinger

Dragondrums


The Renegades of Pern


All the Weyrs of Pern


Jack McDevitt

The Academy Novels

An Introduction to the Series

The Engines of God

Deepsix

Chindi