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 clich├ęs 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+