Monday, May 12, 2014

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1974, 112 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Though it’s Martin Scorsese’s directorial follow-up to Mean Streets (1973), the real creative leader of this feminist character study was Ellen Burstyn, who hired the then up-and-coming director to toughen up Robert Getchell’s screenplay.  Burstyn (in her best performance) plays a dissatisfied housewife who is left to raise a young child (Alfred Lutter) by herself after her abusive husband (Billy Green Bush) dies in a work accident.  That scenario sounds like fodder for a Lifetime melodrama, but the gritty aesthetic, the three-dimensional performances of the impressive cast, and the surprisingly frequent comedic moments turn Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore into a vibrantly realistic character study.  The mood is lively and funky rather than somber, and neither the big dramatic moments nor the hopeful ending feel forced.  B+

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France, 2013, 179 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
This drama about a tempestuous relationship between a sexually inexperienced high school student (Adele Exarchopoulos) and an adventurous college-age artist (Lea Seydoux) follows the predictable broad outlines of most romance stories, but distinguishes itself by burrowing so thoroughly into every intimate detail of the couple’s life that they wind up feeling like real people rather than movie characters.  The lead actresses give phenomenal individual performances, and have an electric chemistry whenever they appear onscreen together.  B+

Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, USA, 2014, 136 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Though slickly directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (previously best known for helming episodes of ambitious sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community), the second film in the Captain America franchise is ultimately just another in the endless assembly line of Marvel superhero movies.  The basic governmental conspiracy scenario is fairly involving – and it’s a clever touch to cast Robert Redford, hero of classic paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (1975), as a corrupt official - but the story is weighed down by its need to service the increasingly convoluted Marvel continuity.  I love The Dark Knight (2008) as much as anyone, but at this point the model that it set for all subsequent superhero blockbusters is starting to ware on me, and I’d love to see someone make a brisk, fun 90 minute action movie rather than another of these overcomplicated behemoths.  C+

Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1935, 119 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
This uncommonly elegant swashbuckler marked the first of eight films co-starring newcomer Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, who later reunited with ace villain Basil Rathbone and director Michael Curtiz for the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Here Flynn portrays an Irish doctor who is enslaved after giving medical attention to an enemy of King James.  After successfully leading a revolt, Flynn and his fellow former slaves turn to a life of piracy.  The filmed version of Rafael Sabatini’s novel is sometimes a bit too classy for its own good – a climactic battle between two pirate ships doesn’t feel as chaotically exciting as it should – but the episodic plotting ensures that a fun setpiece is never far away.  The handsome production values and Flynn’s effortlessly charismatic performance combine to make this a sterling example of 1930s blockbuster filmmaking.  B

Django (Sergio Corbucci, Italy, 1966, 91 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
Django is the quintessential Sergio Corbucci spaghetti western, which is to say that it’s just like a Sergio Leone movie except with lesser production values and more sadistic violence.  For a film that’s such an obvious knockoff of Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964) – another western that featured a stoic protagonist playing two sides of a war against each other – Django has had a surprisingly long legacy, inspiring dozens of unofficial sequels, including Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).  This type of cult film lives or dies on its iconic moments, but unfortunately it’s all downhill after an opening credit sequence that finds Franco Nero’s eponymous hero dragging a huge casket through a muddy wilderness as Luis Bacalov’s melodramatic theme song blares.  The film’s anti-fascist subtext is hard to take seriously considering the worshipful attitude it takes toward the hero’s machine gun.  C

Four Lions (Chris Morris, UK, 2010, 97 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
This fearless satire follows a group of novice jihadists as they plan and eventually (sort of) execute a public bombing.  Terrorism is hardly the most obvious source for comedy, but the sheer audacity of Four Lions’ concept is a large part of what makes it funny.  The film isn’t particularly cinematic – it’s no surprise that co-writer/director Chris Morris has primarily worked in television – but the cast is so magnificent, managing to strike a tricky balance between portraying believable people and bumbling fools, that the pedestrian cinematography seems beside the point.  B

Go West (Buster Keaton, USA, 1925, 68 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
Buster Keaton’s take on the western genre doesn’t have the huge laughs of Sherlock Jr. (1924) or the impressive production values of The General (1927), but it does admirably revolve around a goofy non sequitur of a loving relationship between Keaton’s novice ranch hand and a cow named Brown Eyes.  This is unmistakably minor Keaton, but fans will find plenty to enjoy.  B-

The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1955, 99 min.)
Viewed on Blu-Ray          Second Viewing
Full Review at Joyless Creatures
The Trouble with Harry is Alfred Hitchcock’s only full-blown comedy and perhaps the most offbeat and overlooked film from his incredibly sustained creative winning streak in the ‘50s.  (In an impressive display of his range, Hitchcock made The Wrong Man, his bleakest and most existentialist film, a year later).  It’s indicative of the film’s odd tone that the titular “character” is in fact a corpse who the main quartet of characters spends most of the film burying and unburying.  These are the richest and most multi-faceted lead characters in any Hitchcock film, and the excellent ensemble cast makes their actions feel believable even when they are at their most absurd.  Many films revolve around dead bodies, but this is one of the few that uses such a setup to celebrate the oddities of life.  A-

The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, USA, 1987, 119 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
Paramount threw everything that money could buy at this prestige blockbuster, marrying a recognizable property (the 1960s TV series The Untouchables) with typically showy direction from Brian De Palma, a script from David Mamet, costumes by Giorgio Armani, a musical score by Ennio Morricone, and a star-studded cast including Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert De Niro.  Naturally the end result seems more like a work of commerce than art.  While the film is passably entertaining in spurts, most of its best moments seem borrowed from better pieces of entertainment – with the pointless and endlessly protracted homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin (1925) being the worst offender.  In all respects except box office numbers this is the Gangster Squad (2013) of its day.  C

Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, USA, 2009, 96 min.)
Viewed on Blu-Ray          Second Viewing
Pixar’s boldest, strangest, and hands-down most moving film manages to deliver all of the spectacle and humor expected in a quality family film while still being more unpredictable and wise than most films aimed at adults.  A widowed retiree finds a creative way to avoid having his house taken away from him when he ties thousands of balloons to it and floats away to the tropical paradise that he always dreamed of visiting with his wife.  But his dream vacation is foiled when he inadvertently brings a sweetly obnoxious Boy Scout along with him.  Their bizarre adventure includes unique sights such as dogs whose collars transmit their base thoughts, and climaxes with an epic action sequence involving elderly men with chronic back problems.  This is one of the last truly creative films that Pixar made before turning into a sequel factory, and they certainly went out with a bang, with a uniquely enthralling story captured by the most expressive CGI animation seen anywhere to date.  A

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