Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, USA, 2013, 90 min.)
Viewed on Netflix           First Viewing
Gritty tales of revenge are all too common in cinema, but veteran cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s directorial debut puts a refreshing spin on this type of story by constantly demonstrating that the vengeful party (Macon Blair) is completely in over his head in his pursuit of the backwoods clan who murdered his parents.  Blair never becomes an unstoppable badass, but remains a meek everyman even when he’s committing acts of horrifically graphic violence, which makes the action unbearably tense even as it gives the film a moral dimension usually lacking in revenge plots.  It’s like the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) or Fargo (1996), but without the ironic distancing and with a more effectively streamlined narrative.  B

A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2013, 90 min.)
Viewed on DVD             First Viewing
Ben Wheatley is one of the most exciting talents in modern horror, largely due to his skill at unpredictably mixing in elements from other genres – which makes it all the more disappointing that his latest is a generically trippy psychedelic nightmare that feels too slavishly indebted to decades-old head films to be truly avant-garde.  The black and white cinematography is excellent throughout, and the inevitable druggy freak-out at the climax is sharply edited, but the film is mostly a bore.  C

The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay – Part One (Francis Lawrence, USA, 2014, 123 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
For all its glossy blockbuster showmanship, this still feels less like a proper feature film than it does bonus content linking last year’s surprisingly strong Catching Fire to the upcoming Mockinjay – Part TwoC

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, 2013, 80 min.)
Viewed on Netflix           First Viewing
Before taking her vows in a 1960s Polish convent, a young novitiate nun’s (Agata Trzebuchowska) faith is tested by a road trip that brings her into contact with her bitter communist aunt (Agata Kulesza), the music of John Coltrane, and the revelation that she is a Jew whose parents were killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski tackles heavy themes in a disarmingly tender and gentle way, putting the focus on the semi-comic developing relationship between his mismatched lead characters rather than forcing any broad statements about religion, politics, or the Holocaust.  Pawlikowski wisely lets his incredible black and white imagery do most of the talking, and in Trzebuchowska he found the year’s most mesmerizing camera subject.  B+

Noah (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 2014, 138 min.)
Viewed on DVD             First Viewing
Darren Aronofsky approaches the Biblical tales of Noah the same way that Peter Jackson dealt with The Hobbit:  expanding on a simple story by filling in the missing details, adding context from related texts, and turning brief textual passages into vividly detailed action scenes.  The results are messy, with serious ruminations about faith sitting next to shots of giant rock creatures getting pelted with flaming arrows.  Imagine simultaneously watching The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) and Waterworld (1995) and you’ll have a good idea of this film’s tone.  The various creative agendas only gel in one scene (a psychedelic montage detailing the Christian Creation myth), but it’s bracing to see a rare example of the Bible treated without kids gloves in a major Hollywood production.  The filmmakers certainly deserve credit for ambition even if they mostly miss the mark.  C+

Nymphomaniac, Volumes 1 & 2 (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 2014, 240 min.)
Viewed on Netflix           First Viewing
Lars on Trier’s latest provocation is thankfully not the “porn film with movie stars” that it was rumored to be.  Instead it’s the cinematic equivalent to Kanye West’s Yeezus – an insane collision of high art and bad taste that is sometimes frustrating but always fascinating.  Though ostensibly the life story of a sex addict (Charlotte Gainsbourg in the present day, and Stacy Martin as a young woman), the film also functions as an obtuse autobiography of its controversial writer-director.  The film is drowning in references to von Trier’s career, with allegorical nods to his Dogme 95 movement mixed with flagrant remixes of shots, scenes and plot elements from his other works, but the story is compelling enough for non-fans to follow along.  The story is structured as a conversation between Gainsbourg and a mild-mannered intellectual (Stellan Skarsgard, blatantly standing in for von Trier’s critics) divided into eight chapters, with each section boasting its own tone and style.  As a result, the film is (perhaps inevitably) uneven, but the rambling style keeps it from ever being boring.  In fact this is in some ways von Trier’s funniest and most conventionally entertaining film to date despite its extreme content and length.  Two standout scenes – the epically sarcastic meltdown of the wife (Uma Thurman) of one of the main character’s conquests, and a shot where a confused Gainsbourg is framed in between the huge erect penises of two men arguing in an untranslated African dialect – are as funny as anything I saw anywhere this year.  B+

Paradise Alley (Sylvester Stallone, USA, 1978, 107 min.)
Viewed on Netflix           First Viewing
The success of Rocky (1976) allowed Sylvester Stallone to make his directorial debut with a production of one of his earlier screenplays, about a poor Hell’s Kitchen family who try to get rich in the professional wrestling business.  Rocky successfully combined classical Hollywood storytelling with Neorealist grit, but Paradise Alley’s artistic priorities are much more awkwardly balanced.  At various points the film is a slice-of-life, a hokey melodrama, an awkward comedy, a showcase for grimly violent squared-circle action, and a blatant vanity project for its writer-director-star, but Stallone never commits to a tone.  The in-ring sequences were choreographed by legendary NWA Heavyweight Champion Terry Funk, but they are filmed in a surprisingly flat manner by Stallone, who has since become a skillful director of visceral action.  C

Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, USA, 1959, 75 min.)
Viewed on DVD             Latest of Many Viewings
Disney’s version of Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale was considered a critical and commercial disappointment when it was released in 1959, but today it looks like another sterling example of the studio’s knack for combining expert craftsmanship and genuine charm.  It’s true that the titular character and her loving prince are fairly bland lead characters, but so much screen time is devoted to the colorful supporting cast of drunken kings, bumbling fairies, and one of cinema’s most memorable wicked witches that it seems pointless to complain.  The gorgeous hand-inked animation is spectacular even by Disney standards.  B+

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France, 2013, 126 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
The tired post-apocalyptic thriller gets a fresh spin in Bong Joon-ho’s wildly energetic film, loosely adapted from a series of French graphic novels.  In the wake of a new ice age, the surviving members of the human race live aboard a gargantuan train powered by a perpetual-motion engine, forever circling around a world-wide track.  Poor citizens live in dirty, cramped quarters in the back of the train while the wealthy live in relative comfort up front.  One dissident (Chris Evans) from the back of the train hatches a plan to assassinate the train’s mysterious leader, and the film follows his increasingly gory and surreal rebellion all the way to the engine room.  The level of eccentric detail on the train set recalls dystopian classics like Brazil (1985), and the many action set pieces become increasingly deranged as the action heads toward the front compartments.  The breakneck pacing eventually becomes exhausting, and the social commentary never gets past the surface level, but this is still one of the most fun and ambitious action movies of the year.  B

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013, 108 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic puzzler takes a fairly rote sci-fi premise – an alien (Scarlett Johansson) seduces and kills lonely men before circumstances cause her to begin feeling human emotions – and craftily sidesteps its clichés by embracing a boldly surreal, borderline non-narrative approach.  Few films in recent memory have been as purely cinematic.  Daniel Landin’s richly colorful cinematography and Mica Levi’s nervy string score work in perfect harmony to keep the viewer simultaneously entranced and off-balanced, just like one of Johansson’s victims.  B+

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

6 Souls (Mans Marlind & Bjorn Stein, USA, 2010, 112 min.)
Viewed on DVD             First Viewing
This direct-to-DVD horror film features mysterious supernatural illnesses, devil worship, and a major character with multiple personality disorder, but still winds up feeling completely dull and run of the mill.  Most of the above-average cast, including Julianne Moore and Frances Conroy, are wasted on stock roles, while Jonathan Rhys Meyers goes embarrassingly over-the-top as the character with identity issues.  D-

Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945, 86 min.)
Viewed on DVD             First Viewing
Considering that he’s best known for helming bloated epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it’s almost hard to believe that David Lean is the director of this beautifully streamlined two-hander concerning the affair between a bored middle-class housewife (Celia Johnson) and a doctor (Trevor Howard) who is also unhappily married.  Noel Coward adapted his play Still Life for this film, but Lean assures that the action never feels stagey as he smartly places the lovers in the frame in ways that subtly correspond to the state of their relationship, giving the viewer a palpable sense of their fleeting bliss as well as their sadness and frustration.  It truly feels like a violation of the couple’s privacy any time another character occupies their screen space, though Coward and Lean wisely never vilify any of these people for effect.  The tacked-on happy ending feels like a compromise, but the previous 85 minutes offer one of the most vivid and tragic depictions of an affair on screen, right up there with In the Mood for Love (2000).  A-

Faster, Pussycat!  Kill!  Kill! (Russ Meyer, USA, 1965, 83 min.)
Viewed on YouTube       Second Viewing
Russ Meyer’s outrageous cult classic never fully lives up to the promise of its insane opening moments (a hysterical narration about violence followed by a frantic montage of go-go dancing), but there’s still nothing else quite like it.  The thin plot about a trio of sensationally proportioned dancers (Tura Satana, Lori Williams, and Haji) attempting to rob a legendary stash of money only exists to provide a context for Meyer’s real interests:  lurid violence, ludicrously hard-boiled dialogue (when one character asks Satana what her point is, she growls “the point is of no return, and you just crossed it!”), and, of course, enormous breasts.  B

Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA, 2014,149 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
David Fincher’s adaptation of 2012’s best-selling mystery novel is a marvel of craftsmanship that succeeds almost in spite of its trashy material.  Screenwriter Gillian Flynn reportedly changed very little in adapting her book for the screen, but Fincher and his production team give the film a chilly modern noir mood that make it easy to look past (or even enjoy) the shallowness of the story.  Giving away too much of the narrative would spoil a lot of the fun – particularly given how much a ludicrous mid-story plot twist changes the game – but suffice to say that the film revolves around the aftermath of the disappearance and apparent murder of a wealthy socialite (Rosamund Pike), and the suspicious behavior of her husband (Ben Affleck).  Fincher and Flynn keep the plot momentum high (the two and a half hours fly by), but the general atmosphere of creeping menace is a lot more convincing than the characters’ actions are.  Pike, in particular, has issues navigating a character written with little recognizable human motivation.  B-

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, USA, 1939, 77 min.)
Viewed on YouTube       First Viewing
This is the first of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films to co-star Basil Rathbone as the iconic detective and Nigel Bruce as his faithful sidekick John Watson.  Though often considered to be the best silver screen version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous novel, this is ultimately a fairly generic procedural.  The oddball chemistry between the erudite Rathbone and the bumbling Bruce is entertaining, but their scenes together are limited, as Holmes spends a surprising amount of time either on the sidelines or in disguise.  C+

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2014, 169 min.)
Viewed in IMAX             First Viewing
The high-tech showmanship on display throughout Interstellar is so mesmerizing that it’s frankly frustrating that Christopher Nolan (and his brother/screenwriting partner Jonathan) felt that they needed to also give the film a blandly sentimental story about the relationship between a father (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter (played at different ages by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn).  Nolan’s hard sci-fi premise, too complicated to detail here, has some intriguing notions about time and space travel, most of which are impressively visualized by he and his crack production team.  If anything the space sequences here may be even more convincing than those in last year’s Gravity, despite the fact that Nolan’s plot gets into the realm of theoretical physics while the earlier film dealt with a relatively realistic scenario.  But Nolan keeps trying for big, broad, Spielbergian emotions that are simply out of his range, despite the best efforts of his fine cast.  The only time the film’s “human element” is really convincing is during the suspenseful build-up to the revelation of one astronaut’s space madness.  More often the film aims shamelessly for tear-jerking moments and winds up just feeling corny, particularly during a brutally prolonged climax reaffirming the connection between father and daughter.  Nolan’s skill is cramming big, ambitious ideas into a blockbuster format.  He should leave the simple stuff up to somebody else.  B-

Martin (George Romero, USA, 1977, 95 min.)
Viewed on YouTube       Second Viewing
This capsule review also appears as part of the Joyless Creatures feature Scary Creatures
George Romero will always be best known for defining the modern zombie film with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), but in between those established horror classics he delivered his best work with this highly peculiar take on the vampire subgenre.  In fact, it isn’t clear whether the titular character (John Amplas) is a vampire at all, even though his Old World cousin (Lincoln Maazel) insists on referring to him as “Nosferatu.”  Martin is a killer, but instead of hypnotizing women and biting their necks he has to knock them out with a syringe and stab them with razors.  He’s not a supernatural seducer, but an extremely awkward teenager with severe emotional issues.  It’s hard to think of a film that more accurately captures the feeling of being young and alienated, with all of the boredom, sexual frustration and social anxiety that that entails.  In a sense Martin functions as an empathetic, if unflattering, portrait of Romero’s midnight movie audience, in much the same way his later Knightriders (1981) was an obtuse autobiography.  Where many later Romero films have been marred by overly blunt social commentary, Martin’s messages are oblique and frequently arrive in surprising ways, including a very offbeat mid-film parody of The Exorcist (1973).  All of this may make the film sound like some sort of postmodern meta commentary on horror, but while Romero isn’t afraid to poke fun at the genre that made him famous, he also delivers on real, visceral terror.  Though not especially gory, the murder scenes are unnervingly drawn out and intense, with one incredibly taut home invasion sequence standing out as a mini masterpiece of heart-pounding suspense.  A-

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, USA, 2014, 117 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
This bitter yet surprisingly funny modern noir suggests that veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy has an impressive future in front of him as a director.  When we first meet Louis Bloom (a frighteningly committed Jake Gyllenhaal), he’s little more than a petty thief, but a chance encounter with a crime scene gives him the ambition to capture luridly violent footage and sell it to the highest bidding local news stations.  Eventually, when the crime scenes aren’t vivid enough to get Gyllenhaal the types of shots he needs, he decides to take matters into his own hands.  The film has already earned plenty of understandable comparisons to Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Ace in the Hole (1951), but King of Comedy (1983) is perhaps an even closer match in tone and story.  Like Robert De Niro’s aspiring talk show host in Scorsese’s classic, Louis Bloom speaks almost entirely in absurd platitudes, and his collision (and quasi-sexual relationship) with a cynical news producer (Rene Russo) has some similarities to the confrontation between the De Niro and Jerry Lewis characters in the earlier film.  Overall Nightcrawler is more flawed than Scorsese or Wilder’s films – it’s messages can be overly blunt at times, and a police investigation into Gyllenhaal’s activities is introduced too late to really go anywhere.  But it’s still one of the most purely entertaining films of the year, with beautiful cinematography from Robert Elswit, a riveting climactic car chase that ranks as one of the finest action scenes of recent memory, and the performance of the year from Gyllenhaal, who is equally hilarious and terrifying.  B+

Temptation:  Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (Tyler Perry, USA, 2013, 111 min.)
Viewed on Netflix           First Viewing
Tyler Perry’s hysterical melodrama may be the best “so bad it’s good” movie since The Room (2003). Though far more competently made than Tommy Wiseau’s wonderfully awkward psychodrama, Temptation displays an equally shaky grasp of normal human behavior, and has an even more toxic view of women.  The story follows a therapist (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) as she grows bored with her childhood sweetheart husband (Lance Gross) and falls into the arms of a suave jet-setter (Robbie Jones) who is described with memorably pointless specificity as “the third-largest social media mogul behind Mark Zuckerberg.”  While the broad outlines of the story are strictly generic, the details are almost uniformly bonkers.  Some of Perry’s curious creative decisions – such as filling one “erotic” hot tub scene with so much literal steam that the characters are almost completely invisible – can probably be blamed on the writer-director’s devout Christianity.  But how could anyone explain the scene where the husband attempts to cheer up his wife by donning a cowboy hat and a guitar to lip synch to “Try a Little Tenderness,” a song that neither features a prominent guitar line or justifies wearing a cowboy hat?  Or Kim Kardashian’s supporting role as a secretary whose constant put-downs of the therapist’s fashion sense are apparently (maybe) meant as comic relief?  Or Vanessa Williams, as the therapist’s boss, affecting a jarringly phony French accent?  Or the many scenes where it is suggested that the social media celebrity is literally Satan?  Nothing will prepare viewers for the batshit insanity of the epilogue, in which the therapist (now at least twenty years older) goes to a pharmacy owned by her now-ex-husband to pick up her HIV medication, limping away as her ex is surrounded by a loving, presumably devoutly Christian family.  Let that be a lesson to you, ladies:  stick with your boring husband (and the church) no matter what.  You don’t want to end up with that AIDS limp.  B

Young & Beautiful (Francois Ozon, France, 2013, 95 min.)
Viewed on Netflix           First Viewing
A 17-year-old girl (Marine Vacth) loses her virginity during summer vacation, and by the next time we see her its autumn and she’s working as a high-end call girl.  No explanation is given for this career move, and little is revealed about how Vacth feels about her job or her sexuality, as if writer-director Francois Ozon started with the question of why a young person would become a prostitute and then, not finding an obvious answer, decided to simply respect the mystery.  At times Ozon’s decision to keep his film’s meaning so close to the chest is frustrating, but the ambiguity also makes the film intriguingly tough to nail down.  It’s less the tawdry exploitation film that its premise would seem to suggest than a tone poem about the complexities of budding sexuality, and any given scene is just as likely to be creepy or sad as it is erotic.  A memorably puzzling climax featuring a cameo by Charlotte Rampling suggests that the young call girl is just as confused as we are.  B

Friday, October 17, 2014

2014 Milwaukee Film Festival

Movies That I Wanted To See That I Missed
20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, UK, 2014, 97 min.)
An Honest Liar (Tyler Measom & Justin Weinstein, USA, 2014, 93 min.)
Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2013, 108 min.)
Human Capital (Paolo Virzi, Italy, 2014, 109 min.)
In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross, Georgia, 2013, 102 min.)
Still Life (Uberto Pasolini, UK/Italy, 2013, 92 min.)

Movies That I’ll Be Catching Up With On Netflix Shortly
Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2013, 120 min.)
The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia, 2013, 92 min.)
Young & Beautiful (Francois Ozon, France, 2013 95 min.)

The Expedition to the End of the World (Daniel Dencik, Denmark, 2013, 90 min.)
A group of artists, scientists, philosophers and sailors travel beyond the rapidly melting ice mastiffs of Greenland and into uncharted territory in this intriguing but ultimately directionless documentary.  Despite featuring a polar bear attack, a partially heavy metal soundtrack, and even the discovery of a new species, Daniel Dencik’s film still feels like a fairly generic travelogue.  Certainly it suffers from comparison to Werner Herzog’s similar but far more eccentric Encounters at the End of the World (2007).  The scenery is nice, but the film never really develops a point of view beyond a general bemusement regarding the human race’s insignificant place in the universe.  C+

Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929, 68 min.)
With Live Musical Accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra                    
Though a Sight & Sound poll of critics and filmmakers has declared Man with a Movie Camera the greatest documentary of all time, it really belongs more to the tradition of experimental avant-garde film, and boasts an anarchic playfulness to rival Luis Bunuel’s contemporaneous Un chien andalou (1929).  Rather than focusing on a central subject, the film hops restlessly between sensationally filmed imagery ranging from an oncoming train filmed at track level to explosions in a mine to a graphic child birth.  Much of the footage is captured with the aid of then-innovative (and still strikingly impressionistic) use of fast and slow motion, superimpositions, and even a bit of stop-motion animation.  There is no dialogue but you can practically hear the filmmakers shouting “LOOK AT THIS” throughout the film.  Vertov is always credited as the film’s auteur, but Elizaveta Svilova deserves an enormous amount of credit for editing her husband’s mounds of unrelated footage into a coherent (if chaotic) tribute to the possibilities of cinematic expression.  A

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 2013, 125 min.)
Equal parts suspense film, impassioned agitprop, and howl of despair, Manuscripts Don’t Burn bluntly details the horrors of living under a fascist regime.  Writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof knows this subject firsthand – he made this film in defiance of a 20-year band on filmmaking levied by the Iranian government, and had to leave the names of his cast and crew out of the credits to protect them against retribution.  The narrative, drawn from real life, follows a pair of poor killers hired to execute a group of writers who threaten to publish a story exposing a particularly heinous act of government corruption.  Amazingly Rasoulof manages to makes one of these killers a nuanced (at times even sympathetic) character, who struggles with crippling debt and mounting guilt even as he grimly (and graphically) fulfills the demands of his profession.  Unlike some of the recent, similarly themed work by Jafar Panahi, this really feels like a full-fledged film, as gripping as any action blockbuster of recent memory despite its purposefully muted style.  A-

Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France, 2013, 94 min.)
The third film adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel Froth on the Daydream suffers from an excess of whimsy but nonetheless charms thanks to the boundless visual inventiveness of director Michel Gondry.  The couple (Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou) at the center of this love story has the depth of stick figures, which makes it hard to get invested in either their meet-cute or the tragedy that occurs when she develops health issues.  Still, on a purely formal level the film is a constant delight, offering up something funky and strange to look at in virtually every frame.  B-

Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland, 2013, 81 min.)
The feature debut of writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson is a series of interconnected vignettes revolving around men and their equine companions.  Though it never reaches the surreal heights of its obvious inspiration Songs from the Second Floor (2000) it does have some dryly funny moments of its own, and sometimes comes across as the world’s most deadpan sketch film.  The first two segments, revolving respectively around a pompous horse rider’s humiliation when his mare is humped mid-ride, and a drunkard who takes a horse into deep water to score some vodka from a passing commercial boat, are highlights.  B-

Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, Japan, 2013, 99 min.)
This charming anime has a sci-fi concept perfectly suited to the visual freedom of the animated medium.  A scientific disaster has split the world into two radically different societies, one made up on “inverts” whose reversed gravitational pull forces them to live underground so as to not fall into the sky, and another of surface-dwellers who have been taught that they are a superior race.  The visuals are spectacular, but writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshiura hasn’t thought through what he wants to say with the film’s muddled allegory (beyond the obvious “respect each other’s differences” message).  The inevitable star-crossed romance between two members of the separate worlds is nothing we haven’t seen before, but the film’s odd conceit and lovely animation are strong enough to keep things entertaining throughout.  B-

The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine, 2014, 130 min.)
Told entirely in unsubtitled Ukrainian sign language and without the aid of background music, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s bold feature debut earns credit for sheer stylistic audacity.  The narrative is so elemental, and the sign language so expressive, that it’s never a challenge to follow the tale of a young man’s initiation into a fearsome gang at the school for the deaf that he attends.  Cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s masterful tracking shots drop the viewer right in the middle of this alien world, and the results are utterly transfixing, at least in the early going.  Eventually it becomes disappointingly clear that this stylistic innovation is being used in service of a story that grows increasingly nihilistic, climaxing in a series of pointless acts of ultra-violence.  Still, this is a rare film that offers a truly new way of telling a story, and for that alone it’s one of the most noteworthy films of the year.  B

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Jessica Oreck, USA/Ukraine/Russia/Poland, 2014, 73 min.)
Jessica Oreck’s freewheeling essay film touches on ancient Slavic folklore and modern ecological issues while quoting liberally from a variety of classic philosophical texts, but it winds up being less than the sum of its parts (and, frankly, considerably less awesome than its crazy title makes it sound).  This type of film doesn’t have to make a clear point to be effective – Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983), evidently a major inspiration for this film, is a masterpiece even though I could not tell you what it’s about – but it does have to form its disparate parts into a hypnotic whole, and the material in Oreck’s film never quite gels.  Parts of the film are quite effective – the animated stills recounting the legend of Baba Yaga (a forerunner of Hansel & Gretel) are beautiful, and the moody ambient soundtrack by Paul Grimstad is haunting.  But there are too many dull stretches that break the spell.  C+

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Last 5 Movies I Watched

Baby Snakes (Frank Zappa, USA, 1979, 166 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 Third Viewing
Frank Zappa’s film of his 1977 New York Halloween concerts is riveting when it focuses on the action onstage, but is unfortunately overcrowded with extraneous material – including irritating mid-song cutaways to the musicians having tedious backstage conversations.  Even the most interesting non-concert segments, such as Bruce Bickford’s nightmarish claymation interludes, are poorly integrated into the overall film.  Still, the last hour or so, consisting of mostly uninterrupted concert footage of one of Zappa’s most ferocious bands, is essential viewing for any fan of the great guitarist’s music.  The mesmerizing encores of guitar solo vehicles “Muffin Man” and “Black Napkins” are particular highlights.  C+

Con Air (Simon West, USA, 1997, 115 min.)
Viewed On Demand        Second Viewing
This surprisingly fun action blockbuster finds newly released ex-con Nicholas Cage trapped in a prison transport plane hijacked by its most psychotic passengers.  The film is no less bombastic than other Jerry Bruckheimer productions, but in this case the filmmakers seem to actually be aware of how ridiculous all of this is, and they wisely choose to commit to going all the way over the top without ever stopping to wink at the audience.  The top-notch ensemble case (which includes John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Colm Meaney, and, most memorably, John Malkovich as a character named Cyrus the Virus) prove adept at keeping a straight face through the explosions.  B-

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Preston Sturges, USA, 1944, 98 min.)
Viewed on Itunes             First Viewing
Preston Sturges not only managed to sneak all sorts of innuendo and blasphemy past the production code office in this wild screwball comedy, but also turned it into the biggest box office hit of 1944. Betty Hutton stars as a small-town girl who finds herself married and pregnant in the aftermath of a drunken send-off party for the troops, but with no memory of which soldier she wed.  Eddie Bracken is the classic Sturges smitten male, who is easily drawn into Hutton’s plan for him to pose as her husband before her father (William Demarest) finds out about the pregnancy.  As is typical for a Sturges film, all of the parts are perfectly cast, and he never sells out any of his characters for easy jokes.  The big laugh-out loud moments don’t arrive until toward the climax, but two of these scenes rank among the funniest in the Sturges canon:  one in which Demarest’s character, who is the town constable, struggles at length to convince Bracken to escape from a jail cell, and a montage where famous world leaders overreact to news of Hutton’s “miraculous” birth of sextuplets.  A-

Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, USA, 1935, 90 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies              Second Viewing
Charles Laughton stars in this warm-hearted comedy about a refined British butler who is forced to assimilate to American culture after his Lord (Roland Young) loses his services in a poker game to a nouveau riche hick couple (Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles).  Boland hopes that Laughton will help clean up her husband’s redneck lifestyle, but instead it’s the freedoms and opportunities of the new country that rub off on the butler.  In some ways this film may mark the birth of the poet in director Leo McCarey, who turns this silly culture clash scenario into a very sweet love letter to the idea of America.  The justly celebrated scene where Laughton recites the Gettysburg Address to a crowd of enthralled bar patrons has a stirring intensity that reveals the deep personal relevance that the speech had to both McCarrey and his star.  A

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1941, 99 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies              First Viewing
As a general rule I find Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘40s melodramas to be relatively dull compared to his brilliant suspense works of the ‘50s, and this potboiler about a woman (Joan Fontaine) worried that her new husband (Cary Grant) is planning to murder her is no exception.  As usual Hitchcock’s skill as a director is unquestionable, and he finds all sorts of interesting, subtly creepy ways to position Grant’s character in the frame.  This is Grant’s best performance for Hitchcock, allowing him to both play to and subvert his charming rogue persona.  But the story doesn’t really work, because the husband is so blatantly untrustworthy that it’s never believable that Fontaine would fall for him in the first place, and because Fontaine’s character has no personality beyond worrying about her husband.  The unconvincing happy ending that producer David O. Selznick tacked on doesn’t help matters either.  Despite its flaws, this is worthwhile as a showcase for both Grant and Hitchcock, even if the director made many better films.  B-

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Last 13 Movies I Watched

Angel Face (Otto Preminger, USA, 1952, 91 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
In many respects, Angle Face is a standard issue film noir.  A gruff male protagonist (Robert Mitchum, laconic as ever) is ensnared in the duplicitous schemes of an icy femme fatale (Jean Simmons) against a shadowy black-and-white backdrop.  The broad outlines are strictly generic, but the tropes of the genre have rarely been executed as fluidly as they are under the exacting direction of Otto Preminger, who brings an amazingly visceral charge to the pivotal car wreck sequences.  B

 Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014, 165 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Richard Linklater’s grand experiment was filmed gradually over a period of twelve years, allowing viewers the unique experience of watching the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) age before our eyes for real.  The film wisely avoids conventionally dramatic “coming of age” moments and instead largely focuses on the kinds of low-key personal interactions that tend to stick in one’s mind years later.  The sweep of a fictional character’s childhood has never been so convincingly captured on film before, and the most prominent supporting players (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater) are so vividly realized that it’s not hard to imagine equally satisfying alternate edits titled Fatherhood, Motherhood, or Girlhood.  There are a few pacing issues in the last hour, as the film piles on a few too many climaxes (even though the one that Linklater ultimately lands on is just about perfect), but the overall experience is so distinct that the handful of rough edges are forgivable.  A-

The Clock (Christian Marclay, UK, 2010, 1440 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Christian Marclay’s mammoth art installation deserves credit simply for its insane level of ambition and ingenuity.  The project is a 24-hour montage of various clips from films and television, meticulously edited together in “real time” so that the movie can function as an actual clock.  Nearly every clip contains some sort of indication of time, and if a character says that it’s 11:15, it is actually 11:15; if a clock in the background of the next shot says that’s it’s 11:16, that is also the time in real life.  Judging from the three hours of this that I saw (roughly 2:00pm-5:00 pm), I’m not convinced that there’s any point to the experiment beyond gimmickry, but it’s a damned impressive gimmick, and never less than watchable.  The range of sources is mesmerizing, drawing on everything from Harold Lloyd’s classic silent comedy Safety Last! (1923) to Tsai Ming-liang’s minimal arthouse film What Time Is It There? (2001) and everything in between.  (Marclay is evidently also a big X-Files fan – I counted at least three appearances by Mulder and Scully, and I only caught 1/8th of the project).  I’m not going to grade this since I only saw a portion of it, but suffice to say that it’s a must see if it comes to a museum in your area.

The Conjuring (James Wan, USA, 2013, 112 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
This atmospheric horror film tells a fairly generic possessed house tale, but refreshingly achieves its effects through old-school creeping dread rather than graphic violence or “found footage” gimmickry.  There’s nothing here that hasn’t been seen in countless other ghost films, but the finesse on display is rare in the genre.  Director James Wan has certainly come a long way since Saw (2004).  B-

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, USA, 2014, 130 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
The latest installment of the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise is the most impressive since the 1968 original.  The filmmakers manage to wring an impressive amount of excitement and poignancy out of what would seem to be an inherently silly premise.  For a movie that prominently features gun-toting, horse-riding simians, this is surprisingly emotionally grounded and politically nuanced.  The plot revolves around the tension between the hyper-intelligent apes that rule the film’s future Earth and a small band of humans who need resources on the apes’ land.  A series of misunderstandings cause the tenuous alliance between the two groups to shatter, leading to an all-out war.  Exceptional CGI work and terrific performances (from the likes of Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Andy Serkis) make the scenario feel convincing, and the screenplay allows even the warmongers understandable and sympathetic motivations.  Like all modern blockbusters, the film overstays its welcome a bit, but in this case the overlength is the result of an excess of ambition.  B+

Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1995, 121 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 Sixth or Seventh Viewing
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
Possibly the greatest film of the 1990s, Jim Jarmusch’s psychedelic western is one of the rare works of art that can legitimately be called poetic, visionary and profound.  The film’s warped vision of the Old West is disconcertingly detailed and vivid, like a continuous hallucination that allows the viewer to see the reality of the weird old America for the first time.  After taking a bullet to the chest, a meek Cleveland-born accountant (Johnny Depp) is cared for by a jovial Native American (Gary Farmer), who becomes his tour guide through an otherworldly, yet frighteningly convincing western countryside.  In an extraordinary ensemble cast that also includes Crispin Glover, John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Bob Thornton, Iggy Pop, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina, and Robert Mitchum, it’s Farmer’s character who is allowed the greatest amount of charisma and dignity.  This may be the only western in history that presumes a Native American audience – there are even un-subtitled jokes made at the white protagonist’s expense – and that fair treatment of cinema’s most misrepresented race may be the film’s most unique aspect.  A

The Emperor’s New Groove (Mark Dindal, USA, 2000, 78 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
Though the title would seem to allude to the fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, this Disney film sets itself apart from most of the studio’s animated works by being an original story, told in a (mostly) non-musical style.  Even the traditional sappy ballad (this time courtesy of Sting) is thankfully confined to the end credits, and seems incongruous in this fun and fast paced comedy.  The titular Emperor, an 18-year-old egomaniac, is transformed into a llama after a botched magical assassination attempt.  The Emperor is forced to learn humility when the only person willing to help him is a kindly village leader whose land is threatened by the Empire’s plans to pave over it and add a swimming pool.  Thankfully the film doesn't lay its obvious moral on too thick, and instead concentrates its energy on goofy humor, vivid action sequences, and cool hieroglyphic-style animation.  It’s lightweight and inconsequential but also a lot of fun.  B

God Told Me To (Larry Cohen, USA, 1976, 91 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Shlock peddler Larry Cohen’s outré police procedural finds people all over New York City inexplicably going on killing sprees that they calmly insist are the handiwork of God.  Cohen’s enjoyably grungy style has as much in common with George Kuchar’s perverse no-budget experimental home movies as it does with classic Roger Corman exploitation flicks, and he makes great use of grimy pre-Giuliani New York location shooting.  Unfortunately he seems less interested in exploiting the social satire inherent in the premise than in slowly turning the plot into an incoherent soup of sci-fi, Blaxploitation, and crime movie elements.  C+

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA, 2014, 121 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Yet another in the endless parade of Marvel movies, though this one distinguishes itself by being an old-fashioned space adventure (like a wittier, funkier version of the original Star Wars films) rather than another superhero origin story.  The film’s occasional attempts at pathos don’t quite come off – the pacing is too hectic and the plot is too convoluted for the stakes to ever be entirely clear – but thankfully co-writer/director James Gunn mostly sticks to broad comedy and zippy action, making this one of the more fun action blockbusters of recent memory.  B-

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Germany, 1927, 153 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            Latest of Many Viewings
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s unwieldy epic is the most influential science-fiction film ever made.  Every subsequent futuristic city in cinema history owes an unmistakable debt to this film’s brilliant set designs, and the excellent model and matte painting work remains impressive to this day.  The script’s confused ideology (a peculiar jumble of Christianity, Communism, Capitalism, and paranoid German Expressionism) seems oddly appropriate for a film that’s all about the terrors and pleasures of the modern city.  The plotting is clunky and episodic, but Lang’s formal mastery assures that the many expensive set pieces are unforgettable.  Ultimately this is more scatterbrained and less intense than Lang’s best films, but it’s still an indispensable piece of film history and a highly entertaining example of silent-era blockbuster filmmaking.  A-

The Purge (James DeMonaco, USA, 2013, 85 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Last year’s surprise horror sensation brings a dystopian twist to the home invasion subgenre.  In the near future, crime and unemployment are down in the United States due to a new holiday called the Purge, wherein all crime (including murder) is legal for a 12-hour period.  The premise is absurdly implausible on all levels, though it’s not hard to imagine someone like George Romero or John Carpenter making it work in their ‘70s and ‘80s heydays by exploiting the plot’s satirical potential.  Unfortunately writer-director James DeMonaco maintains a deadly serious tone that prevents the outlandish scenario from being as fun as it could be, and his lead villain (Rhys Wakefield) is too busy underlining (and italicizing and highlighting) the movie’s themes to actually be menacing.  The film’s willingness to deal with issues like class disparity is admirable and distinctive, but it’s hard to imagine them being addressed in a more clumsy or less nuanced way.  C+

The Purge:  Anarchy (James DeMonaco, USA, 2014, 103 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
James DeMonaco’s quickie sequel to his surprise horror hit is more ambitious, imaginative, and action-packed than the original, which makes it all the more disappointing that it’s even more heavy-handed and illogical than the original.  The scenario offers non-stop opportunities for entertaining high camp, but DeMonaco treats everything with a grim solemnity that suggests that he thinks he’s teaching the audience valuable lessons about institutionalized violence and classism.  Even a climactic sequence where the ragtag group of heroes is rescued from a Most Dangerous Game situation by a neo-Black Panther group doesn’t feel nearly as fun as it ought to, because the filmmakers don’t seem to have a clue how ridiculous this all is.  C

Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, China, 1991, 125 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Zhang Yimou’s third film pushes his early style to its ultimate extreme, juxtaposing flamboyantly vivid color with a grim narrative of oppression.  Gong Li stars as a young woman who becomes the fourth wife of a wealthy man (Ma Jingwu, pointedly only filmed from a distance or at odd angles).  Though she initially enjoys the pampered treatment that she receives, Gong gradually becomes stifled by both her husband’s inscrutable house rules and by the in-fighting amongst her sister wives.  Whether the film was truly intended as a veiled critique of Chinese authoritarianism (as many claim but Zhang denies), it was clearly made by filmmakers with a deep personal understanding of life in a totalitarian society.  The story isn’t as gripping as in Zhang’s previous film, Ju Dou (1990), but the filmmaking is undeniably masterful, and the tragic ending is hard to shake.  B+

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Last 12 Movies I Watched

22 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA, 2014, 112 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
The follow up to 2012’s surprisingly popular 21 Jump Street reboot gets a lot of energy from its “anything for a laugh” sensibility, though it also overstays its welcome a bit.  Stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have good comedic chemistry, and the latter’s charm in this role is actually a bit of a shock (at least for those of us who missed the first film).  B-

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, USA, 2014, 142 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
The second film in the popular yet wildly inessential Spider-Man reboot is kids’ stuff, for better and for worse.  It’s refreshing to see a modern comic book movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s also a little disconcerting to see an excellent supporting cast (including Jamie Foxx, Sally Field, and Paul Giamatti) wasting their talents on a glorified Saturday morning cartoon.  The lighthearted tone does set the film apart from many recent blockbusters, but the overabundance of characters and subplots are all too familiar.  C+

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, USA, 2014, 113 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Tom Cruise plays a smug military PR man who is forced to relive the same disastrous battle over and over again until he gets it right, in this unexpectedly clever and well-organized sci-fi action film.  It’s basically Groundhog Day (1993) as a special effects heavy blockbuster, but the filmmakers mercifully spare us boring exposition and simply throw us into the premise, allowing us to be just as disoriented in the early goings as the protagonist.  The puzzle narrative is impressively fluid, and the filmmakers continually find smart and surprising ways to offer variations on the premise.  Perhaps inevitably, the film does lose a little steam when the heroes finally figure out exactly what needs to be done, but the quality of the storytelling makes this the nicest surprise of this year’s summer blockbuster season.  B

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, USA, 2014, 123 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Warner Brothers deserve some credit for putting this blockbuster in the hands of young director Gareth Edwards (previously best known for 2010’s micro-budgeted Monsters), who intelligently films and edits the footage of the creatures in ways the put the audience in the shoes of the human characters.  Edwards’ skill for creating kinetic action sequences should make the film gripping, but there is an odd lack of danger to the major disaster sequences, and the lack of blood and human casualties in the city-destroying setpieces suggests that the film was constrained by pressure to turn in a PG-13 edit.  The talented ensemble cast is largely wasted as well.  Bryan Cranston has room to give his stock character some genuinely intense pathos, but Ken Watanbe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and David Straithern are just here to deliver exposition.  C+

Hercules (Ron Clements & John Musker, USA, 1997, 93 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
This smarmy take on the legend of Hercules may be the nadir of Disney animated films.  The charm and wonder of the studio’s classics is replaced here with a jumbled mix of corny vaudeville humor and cynical pop culture referencing.  The R&B Greek chorus would be an interesting eccentric touch if it was stylistically integrated into the film’s aesthetic in any logical way, but in context it’s just another random element.  C

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, UK, 1949, 106 min.)
Viewed on Itunes             Second Viewing
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
Ealing Studio’s dark comic masterpiece is angry and class conscious in a way that only a British film can be.  After his mother is disowned by the wealthy D’Ascoyne family, a young man (Dennis Price) devotes his life to systematically murdering the eight family members who stand in the way of the inheritance that he believes is his birthright.  Each of the D’Ascoyne’s is played by Alec Guinness, and viewers who are primarily familiar with his stoic work as Obi-Wan Kenobi will be blown away by the comedic range he displays here.  The film is lavished with production values befitting the aristocratic family at its center, and the script and the performances are absolutely top notch.  A

The Love Parade (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1929, 107 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Though it’s most notable for being the first Hollywood musical to transcend the revue format (meaning that it’s the first where characters break spontaneously into song rather than in the context of musical performances for an onscreen audience), Ernst Lubitsch’s first talkie is more than just a historical footnote.  It’s yet another fine demonstration of the famous “Lubitsch touch,” as the director flaunts a mastery of early sound technology that nearly equals his already well-developed visual sense.  The material being recorded doesn’t always feel worthy of the director’s efforts – the story (about the marriage between a womanizing Count and a shrewish Queen) is uninteresting, and the musical numbers largely feel dated and unmemorable (aside from “Let’s Be Common,” which features some insanely athletic physical comedy from supporting players Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth).  Still, there is ample charm in both the production values and in the chemistry between stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.  B

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 2013, 123 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to find a fresh take on the overcrowded vampire subgenre.  The writer-director is less interested in creating scares or wallowing in doomed romanticism than in using his undead main characters to take stock of his own obsessions (classic literature, underground music, the work of Nikola Tesla, the cityscapes of Detroit and Tangier) as they become increasingly ignored by the modern world.  The film is often hilariously deapan, but its sincere reverence for art from all eras is genuinely touching.  Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are ideally cast as the world’s oldest, most undead hipsters, and they are ably supported by fine supporting players such as Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, and Anton Yelchin.  As usual, Jarmusch supervises an outstanding and eclectic soundtrack, with music provided by minimalist composer Jozef van Wissem and noise rockers SQURL as well as others.  B+

The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France, 2013, 130 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi followed his masterpiece A Separation (2011) with another morally complicated and emotionally charged drama revolving around the damage caused by the collapse of a relationship.  Though the action has been transported to France, The Past does feel at times a little too similar to Farhadi’s previous triumph, as if the writer-director is as unable to move on from his own recent history as his characters are.  Yet it’s hard to fault the film too much for its slight feeling of déjà vu when the results are this assured.  The level of verisimilitude in both the performances and the script is spellbinding, and no filmmaker working today rivals Farhadi’s skill when it comes to story structure.  B+

Pocahontas (Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg, USA, 1995, 81 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
Disney’s take on the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith is about as whitewashed as you’d expect, though the streamlined narrative and the high quality animation do give the film a certain charm.  Though far less graceful than the classic Disney animated films, and not remotely as spellbinding as The New World (Terrence Malick’s 2005 take on the same legend), this is still a reasonably entertaining time passer.  C+

Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1997, 134 min.)
Viewed on YouTube        Second Viewing
Understanding Auteurs Review
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
In scale and scope, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated fantasy epic rivals such masterpieces of live-action cinema as Seven Samurai (1954) and Andrei Rublev (1966).  This is one of the most beautifully animated films in history - every frame is dynamically composed and filled with rich, colorful detail.  Unfortunately the script doesn’t always match the grace of the imagery, as Miyazaki overburdens the compelling central narrative (in which a hunter inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a conflict surrounding control of a forest) with too many unevenly developed factions and ancillary characters.  Still, it’s hard to begrudge the film a few excesses when it otherwise manages such an impressive fusion of relentless action and otherworldly beauty.  B+

X-Men:  Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, USA, 2014, 131 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men franchise makes an ambitious attempt to simultaneously follow up on the little-loved X-Men:  The Last Stand (2006) and the enjoyable prequel X-Men:  First Class (2011) by uniting both films’ casts through a convoluted time travel narrative.  The novelty of the premise is appreciated, but stylistically the film does little to stand out from the endless wave of superhero movies.  There is one memorable scene involving a mutant manipulating time during a frantic shootout, but for the most part this feels like the typical modern blockbuster despite its unique storyline.  C+