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

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