Saturday, October 31, 2015

2015 Milwaukee Film Festival

Call Me Lucky (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2015, USA, 106 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Bobcat Goldthwait’s documentary begins as a lightweight (and perhaps overly fawning) tribute to his stand-up comedy mentor Barry Crimmins, but gradually works its way toward far darker and more compelling material regarding the sexual abuse that Crimmins suffered as a child. The comedian first revealed his traumatic past to friends and fans alike during what was presumably a very intense show, and later became an outspoken crusader against childhood pornography. B-

 Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman, 2015, USA, 100 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Matthew Heineman’s riveting look at vigilante groups fighting against Mexican drug cartels often feels more like a high-octane action feature than it does a documentary. The director (who served as his own cinematographer) was often present when bullets were flying and hostages were being taken, and he managed to capture most of his footage with camerawork that feels remarkably composed considering the difficult conditions that he was working in. This is one of the most cinematic documentaries in recent memory, but some tightening up in the editing room could have improved it as both a film and a piece of reportage. The material about the Autodefensas, a group of Mexican citizens raging against the notorious Knights Templar gang, is vastly more engaging than the sections concerning a crackpot Arizona paramilitary group who seem more concerned with preventing illegal immigrants from entering the United States than they do with keeping drugs off the street, but Heineman awkwardly crosscuts between the two frequently as if to suggest that their efforts are somehow equivalent. B

The Club (Pablo Larrain, 2015, Chile, 98 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
This lacerating yet wryly funny indictment of the Catholic Church concerns a group of disgraced priests whose cushy banishment on a beach house is disrupted when a man badly damaged by the years of sexual abuse he suffered as an altar boy arrives looking for answers, and inadvertently incites a violent event. The church sends a crisis counselor to investigate the incident, leading to a variety of revelations that would be a shame to spoil here. Co-writer/director Pablo Larrain doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the film’s subject matter, but takes an admirably nuanced and measured approach that prevents this from feeling like a simplistic angry screed. The superb ensemble cast ensures that the priests feel like real people rather than broad caricatures, which makes it all the more effective that Larrain refuses to let them off the hook. A

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015, Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina, 125 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Ciro Guerra’s visionary epic rivals Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) as a viscerally authentic depiction of dangerous jungle landscapes as it follows an Amazonian shaman’s experiences guiding European scientists searching for a legendary healing plant. The film threatens to go off the rails during an over-the-top sequence where the heroes are kidnapped by a false prophet, but is otherwise a thoroughly convincing and thoughtful look at the destructive effects of colonialism on South America. David Gallego’s black and white cinematography is consistently mind-blowing. B+

The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014, Denmark/Indonesia, 103 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
The companion piece to the remarkable 2012 documentary The Act of Killing approaches the 1960s Indonesian genocide from the perspective of an optometrist whose brother was one of the victims. The eye doctor visits some of the high-ranking perpetrators (many of whom are still in positions of power) under the guise of giving them medical help, but gradually confronts them about their roles in the purging, and the various responses to his interrogations are psychologically fascinating and often intense. As in his previous film, director Joshua Oppenheimer exposes an entire nation still traumatized by and unable to process their brutal history. While the film lacks the audacious premise or the unforgettable ending of its predecessor, it has a similarly disquieting power. A-

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, Sweden, 96 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    Third Viewing
The Seventh Seal is such a revered classic of highbrow world cinema that it’s easy to forget how witty and light on its feet it is. Max von Sydow’s knight is a typical Ingmar Bergman hero in that he is tediously obsessed with “the silence of God,” but the broad existential struggles explored here are fully justified due to the fact that the man knows that he’s dying, and is in fact engaged in a protracted literal chess match with the Grim Reaper (Bengt Ekerot) that will seal his fate once and for all. Though Sydow is ostensibly the protagonist, comic relief characters such as his sarcastic squire (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and a goofy actor (Nils Poppe) who they encounter on their journey are positioned as the audience identification figures, which greatly softens Bergman’s usual sledgehammer approach and makes this film far more palatable than much of his other work. Despite its wryly comic tone, this is by no means a frivolous film, and its depictions of the ravages of the Black Plague remain chilling. A-

Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, 2014, United Arab Emirates, 100 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
The world’s first Bedouin Western follows a young boy (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) who is forced to grow up fast when he is charged with leading a WWI British soldier (Jack Fox) to a secret desert location. Things fall apart quickly as members of their party are killed by members of a rival clan and the survivors have to struggle both to avoid capture and to find drinkable water. The brutality of the film’s desert setting never feels less than authentic, which makes the lead character’s struggle absolutely gripping. B+

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents (Don Hardy Jr., 2015, USA, 87 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
This frivolous documentary about legendary avant-garde collective The Residents feels more like a DVD bonus feature than something that belongs in theaters. The group’s continuing dedication to anonymity prevents the talking heads footage from revealing any new insights to longtime fans, and too much of the performance footage was culled from what appears to have been a relatively mundane recent tour. Still, the group’s aesthetic is colorful enough that the fleeting glimpses of their pioneering music videos and bizarre TV appearances could convert some adventurous music fans to their cause. C

We Come as Friends (Hubert Sauper, 2014, France, 110 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Hubert Sauper’s disturbing documentary about the chaos in modern Sudan and the outsiders who attempt to profit from the nation’s natural resources features an impressive amount of provocative, unforgettable imagery. Unfortunately Sauper seems more interested in simply outraging the viewer with distressing images of political turbulence and abject poverty than he does in actually understanding the Sudanese crisis or offering solutions. The film is undeniably disquieting and striking, but it never comes close to feeling edifying. C+

Welcome to Leith (Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K Walker, 2015, USA, 85 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Leith, North Dakota is one of the smallest towns in the United States, with a population of 24. In 2012 a white supremacist named Craig Cobb began buying up land in the town with plans to move in like-minded people and overthrow the tiny local government. This documentary follows the efforts of the townspeople to prevent their home from becoming a base of operations for extremists. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K Walker don’t do anything cinematically flashy or innovative here, but the story is so bizarre and fascinating, and the copious footage of Cobb’s contentious interactions with his neighbors is so consistently intense, that aesthetics almost seem beside the point. B+

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Curse of Chucky (Don Mancini, 2013, USA, 97 min.)
Viewed on DVD          First Viewing
The long-running Child’s Play franchise gets back to basics with its latest installment, which largely eschews the in-your-face campiness of Bride of Chucky (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004) in favor of old-fashioned creepy doll horror. The classical slow burn approach that writer-director Don Mancini takes here proves surprisingly effective, and he devises a number of creative kills and plot twists that keep the film fun even if it’s less outwardly eccentric than its predecessors. B-

Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty, 1990, USA, 105 min.)
Viewed On Demand    Latest of Many Viewings
The 1990 cinematic version of Chester Gould’s famous series of comic strips is a wonderfully flamboyant and fun antidote to the typical ultra-serious comic book movie. Director/producer/star Warren Beatty takes his cues directly from the source material, lovingly reproducing the vibrant primary colors and goofy one-dimensional characters without getting bogged down in tedious origin stories or forced attempts at heavy themes. The film is undeniably shallow, and none of the action scenes are particularly memorable, but it’s simply a joy to spend 105 minutes in this live-action cartoon world. B

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014, USA, 99 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        First Viewing
Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature film debut has an irresistible hook, as it is almost certainly the first black-and-white vampire movie set in the Muslim world (the film was financed in the United States and shot in California, but it is set in Iran with dialogue is Persian). The problem is that the film can’t seem to settle on one angle into this world. At various points the movie is a deadpan comedy, a straight horror film, a vaguely feminist allegory, or a quirky teenage romance. The material never coheres, but Amirpour’s sense of style is strong enough that many of the individual moments are compelling. With a greater sense of focus she could probably make a great second film. C+

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013, Italy, 141 min.)
Viewed on Hulu          First Viewing
Paolo Sorrentino brazenly stakes his claim as the modern day Fellini with this shameless homage to La Dolce Vita (1960). Thankfully Sorrentino has the stylistic chops to nearly justify his hubris, and it’s refreshing to see a filmmaker operating in a visually maximalist style in this day and age. The film is a treasure trove of beautifully arranged, sumptuous widescreen imagery. Like Fellini, Sorrentino is far better at depicting the bacchanalia surrounding his jaded protagonist than he is at exploring his spiritual emptiness, but Luca Bigazzi’s cinematography goes a long way toward making up for the film’s shallowness. B-

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971, USA, 120 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Third Viewing
Robert Altman’s off-kilter Western is not merely his most dryly funny and poetically haunting film, but also one of the very finest achievements in its genre. A gambler (Warren Beatty) and a business partner (Julie Christie) who he falls in love with run into trouble when the former clumsily attempts to play hardball in negotiations with a major mining corporation, who retaliate by sending three hitmen to murder him. The setting feels like a genuinely bustling town (the sets were actually being built by extras during filming) and allows for a lot of Altman’s trademark off-the-cuff creativity, but the affecting plot is never drowned out by extraneous tangents. The tale gets darker as the looming threat of a violently hostile takeover creeps in, but the vibrancy of the setting keeps the hope of a more loving community alive, like a half-remembered dream, clouded in opium smoke. A

Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015, USA, 86 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Noah Baumbach’s second film of 2015 is far superior to While We’re Young, replacing  that movie's cynical discomfort-based humor with a caffeinated energy more in line with Frances Ha (2013), the director’s previous collaboration with co-writer/star/wife Great Gerwig. As in Frances, the story of a flaky big city dreamer (Gerwig) is told in a series of witty, punchy scenes that unfold with tremendous deadpan comic rhythm. It’s a much more fun and appealing tone than Baumbach’s usual wallow in misery, and the goodwill pays off in a smartly staged climactic scene that gets into the territory of outright farce. The story is minor, but the execution is impressive, and this is surprisingly one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year. B

Runaway Train (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1985, USA, 111 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        First Viewing
Two escaped convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) find themselves stranded on an out of control freight train after the conductor suddenly dies. The film’s concept – re-written from an unproduced Akira Kurosawa screenplay – is a lot sillier than any of the filmmakers seem to realize, and the ending, which involves one of the convicts striking a Christ pose on top of the train shortly before a quote from Shakespeare appears onscreen, is laughably pretentious. That said, the film does make good use of its harsh winter setting, and the action scenes, executed with old-fashioned stunt work rather than special effects, have an impressive physicality. C+

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2014, Belgium, 95 min.)
Viewed on Itunes         First Viewing
The power of the Dardenne Brothers’ films comes from their verisimilitude, so it’s a shame to report that their latest effort is their least convincing to date. A factory worker (Marion Cotillard) returns from a leave of absence to discover that her co-workers have opted to receive a pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal, though she is allowed one weekend to convince them to change their votes. It is interesting to watch Cotillard’s colleagues react to her desperate pleas, but the whole scenario feels simultaneously less plausible and more mundane than the plights of the protagonists of Dardenne masterpieces such as Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (2005). Cotillard’s performance is excellent by most standards, but the directors’ uncharacteristic decision to cast a movie star amidst their usual collection of non-professionals and unknowns is distracting. B-

The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman, 1960, Sweden, 89 min.)
Viewed on Hulu          Second Viewing
This gripping tale of rape and revenge stands alongside The Seventh Seal (1957) and Persona (1966) as one of Ingmar Bergman’s finest works. A trio of goat herders sexually assault and murder a young girl (Birgitta Pettersson) in the woods. Through a twist of fate they wind up spending a night at the home of the girls’ parents, and are forced to deal with the consequences of their actions when the stern patriarch (Max von Sydow) discovers what has happened. The film plays out like a particularly bleak Grimm fairy tale, with an air of menace so thick that it thankfully leaves little room for the chest-beating existentialism that mars so much of Bergman’s other work. Though neither scene is particularly graphic by today’s standards, the rape and the father’s triple homicide are still genuinely unsettling. A-

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014, Turkey, 196 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        First Viewing
Though it lasts over three hours and features numerous spellbinding widescreen shots of the Anatolian countryside, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Cannes prize winner is not a conventional epic. Instead it is an exhaustive (and ultimately exhausting) portrait of a wealthy hotel owner (Haluk Bilginer) who thinks of himself as a community leader even though everyone around him, including his considerably younger wife (Melisa Sozen) and his sister (Demet Akbag), think he’s an asshole. At times Ceylan is able to frame his lead character’s inability to relate to other people as a compelling tragedy, but after a scene where he spends over 30 uninterrupted minutes dismissing his wife’s fundraising ambitions it’s hard to care about what happens to him – and there’s still a solid hour of the film to go. Bilginer gives a towering performance, and there’s no denying Ceylan’s ability to arrange majestic shots, but there just isn’t enough here to fill 196 minutes. B-

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

The 47 Ronin, Parts 1 & 2 (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1941-1942, Japan, 221 min.)
Viewed on Hulu          First Viewing
Though ostensibly such an epic tale that it had to be released in two feature-length parts, Kenji Mizoguchi’s retelling of one of Japan’s most cherished historical events (in which a band of ronin avenge the death of their master) is almost entirely devoid of action. The focus is instead on the minutia of the samurai code of honor, which the director doesn’t seem to have a point of view on even though he devotes virtually the entire three-and-a-half hour run time to lengthy conversations about military protocol. Though he includes a handful of his trademark elegant tracking shots, Mizoguchi’s artistic voice is largely absent here, perhaps owing to the project’s origins as a commission from the Japanese government intended to boost morale for the war effort. C-

The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984, USA, 108 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        First Viewing
John Sayles’ delightful cult hit blends micro-budget science fiction with authentic New York grit to produce one of the freshest films of its era. A mute alien with the appearance of a black man (Joe Morton) crash lands in Harlem and experiences the pleasures and frustrations of human life while evading the men in black (Sayles and David Strathairn) who want to return him to his home planet. The story is clearly an allegory for the immigrant experience, but the film’s social satire never comes at the expense of its joyful embrace of Harlem’s colorful culture. A cosmopolitan curiosity animates nearly every scene, and the exuberant tone makes it easy to accept some of the script’s wonkier sci-fi elements. A-

Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer, 1981, USA, 109 min.)
Viewed on Itunes         Third Viewing
Ivan Passer’s touching look at beautiful losers struggling to survive in a world that no longer has a place for them is the best of the subgenre of thrillers involving the collision of ‘60s counterculture and the corrupt nighttime world or noir. (See also: 1973’s The Long Goodbye, 1998’s The Big Lebowski, 2006’s A Scanner Darkly, and 2014’s Inherent Vice). Aimless beach bum Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) randomly witnesses a dead body being dumped. After Bone identifies a local oil tycoon as the possible culprit, his best friend Alex Cutter (John Heard), a crippled and ferociously paranoid Vietnam vet, launches a suicidal blackmail plot that Bone reluctantly tags along with. Their kamikaze mission plays like a graceful eulogy for the ideals of the ‘60s, with Bridges and Heard offering unforgettable portraits of hippie burnouts. It feels as if the film itself is perpetually coming down from a high. A

The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, 2015, USA, 106 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
This compelling two-hander dramatizes five days in 1996 in which David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), fresh off the success of his enormous novel Infinite Jest, was interviewed by Rolling Stone journalist and struggling author David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg). The film is less a biopic than a study of two men negotiating an awkward dynamic fueled by self-consciousness, professional jealousy, and loneliness. Whenever it seems that Wallace is about to open himself up to Lipsky, the reporter’s ever-present tape recorder and notepad get in the way. Though there is an unnecessary framing device set during the aftermath of Wallace’s suicide (which took place 12 years after the events of the rest of the film), Donald Marguiles’ script otherwise smartly sticks to the prickly interactions of the brilliant author and the careerist reporter, with minimal interruptions from other characters. The leads are more than up to the task of holding the viewer’s attention, and Segel in particular is a revelation in a performance that foregrounds the gentle sorrow that has so often been an undercurrent in his more comedic roles. B+  

God Bless America (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2012, USA, 105 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        First Viewing
After losing his job and finding out about his ex-wife’s impending remarriage, sad sack Frank (Joel Murray) embarks on a killing spree intended to eliminate society’s most vile citizens –  such as spoiled tabloid celebrities, Conservative political pundits, and people who talk on their cellphones during movies. This dark satire has plenty to say about the various ways that people process living in a mean-spirited, trashy society, but writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait fails to shape his extended rant into a convincing narrative. While he attacks many of his targets with a withering accuracy, the focus on things like reality television make it feel like Goldthwait is shooting fish in a barrel. C

The Great Garrick (James Whale, 1937, USA, 89 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       First Viewing
This offbeat farce follows famous 18th Century British actor David Garrick (Brian Aherne) who inadvertently offends the Comedie Francais just before he is due for a residency with their troupe. In retaliation for Garrick’s perceived slight, the French actors decide to disguise themselves as workers at the inn where Garrick is staying and spook him with staged acts of chaos. There are two problems with their prank: Garrick quickly figures out what they are up to (and, amused, decides to play along), and an actual guest (Olivia de Havilland) shows up and falls in love with Garrick (who is convinced that she’s part of the theater group). The complex series of misunderstandings that ensue are more peculiar and interesting than laugh-out-loud funny, but the film is consistently engaging and director James Whale lends a beautiful Gothic edge to the black and white visuals. B

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015, USA, 131 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Like all of the Mission Impossible films, Rogue Nation is not so much a proper narrative film as it is a series of excuses to put Tom Cruise’s superspy in ridiculously dangerous situations. But there’s little point complaining about a stock narrative or shallow characters when the results are this fun. While nothing here outdoes the crazy Burj Khalifa free climb from Ghost Protocol (2011), the many huge setpieces are all mighty impressive, particularly a fantastic pre-credits sequence where Cruise scales the outside of a moving airplane with very little evidence of CGI assistance. B

Shaun the Sheep (Mark Burton & Richard Starzak, 2015, UK, 85 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
This charming dialogue-free clay animated romp follows a band of sheep as they journey to the big city in search of their lost and amnesia-stricken farmer. Aardman Animation’s whimsical aesthetic seems more naturally suited to short films (such as their fantastic series of Wallace & Gromit cartoons), but they manage to keep this film action-packed and frequently hilarious for nearly 90 minutes. The stop-motion animation is incredibly detailed and fluid throughout, and a nice change of pace from the lazy computer art that dominates the current children’s film landscape. Generically bubbly kiddie pop songs occasionally spoil the mood, but overall this is a delight and one of the year’s nicest surprises. B

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997, Iran, 95 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Second Viewing
Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece boldly takes nothing less than the meaning of life as its subject matter, but does so in the most unassumingly minimal manner possible. The film casually follows a man (Homayoun Ershadi) driving across Tehran in search of someone to help him commit suicide in exchange for a large sum of money. As he tries to convince various people (a Kurd soldier, an Afghan religious student, a Turkish professor) to help him, the film proceeds through a series of conversations that ask all kinds of interesting questions about not only why this man would want to die, but why anyone would want to live. The individual discussions never feel heavy, and often have a low-key comic vibe, but they have a powerful cumulative effect, and as always Kiarostami is more interested in asking these questions with an open heart and genuine curiosity than he is in shoving a message down his audience’s throat. A

The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979, USA, 92 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        Third Viewing
The key to the enduring popularity of Walter Hill’s eccentric gangland epic is its masterfully balanced tone. Hill locates the exact middle ground between documentary-real tough guy grit and colorful tongue-in-cheek camp, and he maintains that tenor with impeccable style for over ninety minutes. After being falsely accused of the murder of a charismatic gang leader, the titular Coney Island street gang are forced to fight their way from Pelham Bay back to their home turf, fending off hostile rival groups every step of the way. No matter how impressively silly the various factions’ outfits get, the film never loses its gravity. That combination of flashy style and visceral substance makes The Warriors the ultimate cult film. A-

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015, UK, 128 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Amy Winehouse’s talent was exceptional, but her life story is (sadly) hard to distinguish from that of other famous musicians who died before their time. Director Asif Kapadia smartly sidesteps certain documentary clichés by eschewing generic talking heads interviews and building the film around the copious amounts of video footage available, but this is still scarcely more revelatory than the average Behind the Music episode. C+

Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund, 2014, Sweden/Denmark, 120 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        First Viewing
A family ski trip turns tense when the father (Johannes Kuhnke) and mother (Lisa Loven Kongsli) have radically different instinctual reactions to a sudden avalanche. This is basically the comedic version of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2012), and the different tone makes Force Majeure far less ponderous and more entertaining. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund pokes a lot of entertainingly uncomfortable fun at his central couple but never loses sight of their humanity in the process, and he allows the film to go in a more serious direction when the story demands it. B

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953, USA, 91 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Latest of Many Viewings
Master genre hopper Howard Hawks is primarily known for his films celebrating male camaraderie, but his sole musical is a landmark tribute to the fairer sex. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are sensational as a deceptively smart gold digger and her lusty friend, who confidently reduce the male audience surrogates – including a dirty old man (Charles Coburn), a wimpy nerd (Tommy Noonan), and a deep voiced little boy (George Winslow) – to voyeuristic mush. The dazzling musical numbers (including all-time classic “Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend”) find Hawks making masterfully expansive use of the Academy ratio, as if he was trying to will Cinemascope (which debuted later in the same year that this film came out) into existence. A

Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, 1995, UK, 130 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Second Viewing
The first and most focused of the Pierce Brosnan era James Bond films is a solidly entertaining but somewhat bland entry in the series. There are worse things to watch than “James Bond 101,” as the series’ basic framework is reasonably solid, but Goldeneye never diverts enough from 007’s greatest hits to feel distinctive or memorable. C+

Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955, USA, 150 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Fourth Viewing
Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ film adaptation of one of Broadway’s most popular shows has been criticized for prominently featuring the un-dubbed vocals of non-singers Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, but the raw tenderness of their performances brings a welcome layer of grit to this endearingly goofy MGM super-production. It doesn’t hurt that Brando and Simmons are joined by Frank Sinatra at his most charming, and that they are all assisted by the justly famous songs of Frank Loesser. The entire musical genre reaches its ecstatic height during the insane climactic sequence where Brando sings “Luck Be a Lady” while rolling dice in an inexplicably glitzy sewer. A

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015, USA, 124 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
The latest film in the Jurassic Park series is less a sequel than an extended, jokey homage to the beloved 1993 original. Director Colin Trevorrow keeps the proceedings at an agreeably frantic pace, but while his action scenes are often impressively energetic they are also completely lacking in the synthesis of danger and awe that is the series’ raison d’etre. C+

Spy (Paul Feig, 2015, USA, 120 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Not a parody of the superspy genre so much as a surprisingly credible action film told from a funny perspective. Melissa McCarthy is a CIA analyst who is enlisted for field work after the cover of her more glamorous co-workers is blown. As expected, much of the humor revolves around McCarthy being an unlikely stand-in for James Bond, but the film refreshingly makes it clear that she is ultimately far more resourceful and intelligent than the generic action heroes who surround her. While McCarthy is in fine form throughout, Jason Statham steals the show with a hilarious parody of the type of role he usually plays. The sequence where he lists off his credentials as a bad ass (including seeing his wife get thrown from a plane only to get hit by another plane mid-air) may stand as the funniest scene of the year. B

Terminator Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015, USA, 126 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Yet another tedious action franchise sequel/reboot. The decision to use the Terminator series’ time-travelling elements to literally re-stage sequences from the vastly superior James Cameron originals really highlights how bland this dreary new film is. Even the special effects (a seriously vital component of the series) seem to have regressed from what the Terminator movies offered decades ago. D

Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962, France, 85 min.)
Viewed on Hulu          Second Viewing
Jean-Luc Godard’s tribute to his (then-)love/muse Anna Karina is simultaneously charming (thanks to her charisma) and a little creepy (as he seems to view her more as an art object than a human being). Though the film ostensibly chronicles a young woman’s descent into prostitution, the thin strand of plot is really an excuse for Godard to experiment with different methods of filming his girlfriend. Thankfully this is not as tedious as it sounds, as she is truly a fascinating camera subject. Vivre sa vie is far from Godard’s best film of the ‘60s – it lacks the mind-blowing self-critique of Contempt (1963), the verve of Band of Outsiders (1964), the brilliant genre deconstruction of Alphaville (1965), or the socio-political curiosity of La chinoise (1967) – but it’s still an enjoyable minor work. B-

Where is My Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987, Iran, 83 min.)
Viewed on Hulu          First Viewing
This simple but rich tale of a child (Babek Ahmed Poor) attempting to return a classmate’s notebook that he took by mistake isn’t as innovative as director Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘90s masterpieces (1990’s Close-up, 1997’s Touch of Cherry, 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us), but it has an elemental charm of its own. At times Kiarostami’s ponderous approach to storytelling detracts from the fable-like simplicity of his story, but his interest in documenting rural Iranian culture gives the film an extra dimension that the average children’s film lacks. B

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015, USA, 141 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Writer-director Joss Whedon’s distinctive voice is largely drowned out in the rush to tie together the increasingly convoluted strands of the Marvel cinematic universe in his second valiant attempt to shoehorn in six movies worth of plot into one action blockbuster. The conflict with an artificially intelligent menace (voiced effectively by James Spader) provides a reasonably diverting main storyline, but everything feels too rushed to have any lasting dramatic impact. The CGI-drenched action sequences feel downright tame compared to the epic setpieces in Mad Max: Fury Road and Furious 7. It’s telling that the only time that the film truly comes to life is during one of its few moments of downtime, when the plain-clothed superheroes are sharing jokes at a party. C+

Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955, USA, 81 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
John Sturges’ pulpy tale of small town hostility is the ultimate tough guy movie, seamlessly blending elements of westerns, suspense films, and noir into one tightly coiled package. Spencer Tracy is a one-handed WWII veteran who comes to the tight-knit community of Black Rock in search of a relative of one of his war buddies, but finds that the residents of the town are willing to go to violent lengths to cover up a horrific town secret. The film is constantly threatening to explode into outright hysteria, but Sturges mostly keeps a lid on full-blown action until a nail-biting climax, giving the whole film a marvelous tension. Black Rock’s citizens are brought to vivid life by a who’s who of great ‘50s character actors, including Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, and Walter Brennan. A

Furious 7 (James Wan, 2015, USA, 137 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
That Furious 7 is simple to follow even for those of us who are new to the Fast & Furious franchise is less an indictment of the series’ brain-dead storytelling than it is a testament to the clarity of its mission statement: to be as loud and dumb and explosively entertaining as possible. The shallow characterizations and frenzied (if unusually clearly arranged) MTV-style editing obviously place a ceiling on the film’s quality level, but there’s no denying that the enormous, lengthy, ridiculously expensive looking action setpieces are tons of fun. B-

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014, USA, 120 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Bill Pohlad’s look at the life of Brian Wilson smartly sidesteps many biopic clichés by employing an interestingly fractured narrative structure that cuts back and forth between two distinct periods of its subject’s life. A young Wilson (Paul Dano) following his wandering muse while crafting Pet Sounds and Smile, while the Wilson of the ‘80s (John Cusack, surprisingly effective playing against type) struggles with mental issues, and the constant cross-cutting between the two periods gives the film a melancholic power that would be lacking in a more generic rise and fall narrative. B

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015, Australia, 120 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Mad Max: Fury Road runs a full two hours, and there are probably fewer than five minutes that don’t involve something blowing up, getting shot at, or crashing spectacularly. This is the most ferocious, relentless, and visually impressive action film of recent memory. George Miller never lets the pace slow down enough for the viewer to question the film’s one-dimensional characters or its shallow attempt at feminism, but frankly the action choreography is so mind blowing that theme and narrative seem almost entirely beside the point. Miller executed as much of the action as possible with live stunts and practical effects rather than CGI, but the carnage is so outrageous that it often feels like a live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, and the results are spellbinding. B+

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011, USA, 133 min.)
Viewed On Demand    First Viewing
The fourth Mission Impossible film is the most gleefully over the top to date. Many of the big action sequences are legitimately staggering, the best being an absolutely insane scene in which Tom Cruise’s heroic spy free climbs the outside of the Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building. (The scene was filmed without a stunt double, and on IMAX cameras for extra vertigo-inducing clarity). The film grinds to a halt during the moments when it tries to be anything more than an excuse to put the charismatic Cruise in spectacular danger – the story is purely generic, and the attempts at pathos don’t connect at all – but as a pure action spectacle it’s fantastic. B

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948, UK, 133 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
Powell & Pressburger’s classic deserves its reputation as the greatest dance film of all time simply for its mesmerizing centerpiece, a 20-minute ballet adaptation of Hans Christen Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name, which employs a stunning array of surreal cinematic effects that suggest what one of Disney’s classic animated films would look like in live action. It’s one of the very greatest scenes in cinema history, and it’s so dazzling that the compelling story of artistic obsession that supports it is often unjustly overlooked. Jack Cardiff’s amazing Technicolor compositions remain the high water mark for color cinematography. A

The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert, 1977, UK, 125 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Second Viewing
The tenth James Bond film feels, for better and for worst, like a “greatest hits” package for the series. It delivers on all of the required 007 trademarks but lacks a clear identity of its own. While it’s understandable that the producers would want to follow the unpopular Man with the Golden Gun (1974) with a back to basics Bond picture, the eccentric campiness of most of the Roger Moore era is missed here. That said, the formula does work, and The Spy Who Loved Me is never less than entertaining. Jaws (Richard Kiel) remains the series’ best henchman, Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” is one of the finest Bond theme songs, and a suspenseful scene set in the pyramids of Egypt is a cool travelogue moment. B-

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933, Germany, 121 min.)
Viewed on DVD          Latest of Many Viewings
In many respects this is the ultimate Fritz Lang film, combining the epic storytelling of his silent films with the boldly modern aesthetic of his sound debut M (1931). Liberally borrowing elements from his previous work, Lang creates an unforgettable nightmare world of inexplicable spy rings and dank insane asylums. A dizzying array of pulp sensations are packed into the enjoyable convoluted narrative, and while the plot machinations rarely make logical sense, they are invariably delivered with the type of hypnotic intensity that only Lang could conjure. The remarkable in-camera special effect of the specter of Dr. Mabuse planting evil ideas in a doctor’s head has to be seen to be believed. A

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942, USA, 99 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus              First Viewing
Ernst Lubitsch’s controversial comedy is as irreverent about World War II as Inglourious Basterds (2009) is – but the difference is that this film actually came out while the war was still going on. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play Polish actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use the skills of their trade to infiltrate the German troops. Lubitsch unsurprisingly caught some flak for poking fun at a serious threat, but his classy, casual approach to comedy – the famous “Lubitsch touch” – gives the film layers of emotion and humanism that one wouldn’t normally expect from dark comedy. B+

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933, USA, 75 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       First Viewing
One of the most daring “women’s pictures” from pre-code Hollywood is this entertaining Barbara Stanwyck vehicle about a woman of modest means who brazenly sleeps her way to the top (with guidance from the literature of Nietzsche!). Conventional love conquers all in the damp squib of an ending, but it’s the rest of the film’s unambiguous celebration of a woman going after what she wants that ultimately leaves an impression. B+

Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1966, Spain, 119 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
Orson Welles’ favorite of his own films is this comic tragedy focusing on the friendship and ultimate betrayal of Shakespeare’s recurring characters Falstaff (Welles) and Prince Hal (Keith Baxter). The loss of an Eden due to political and industrial progress was Welles’ most cherished theme, and this film features one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful explorations of that idea. Hal’s ultimate rejection of Falstaff leads to the best acting of Welles’ career, and is all the more powerful due to how memorably the film captures the idyllic earlier stages of their friendship. The chaotic dirtiness of the Middle Ages has rarely been captured as well as it is here, particularly during a violent mud-soaked battle sequence. A-

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014, France, 124 min.)
Viewed Theatrically    First Viewing
Olivier Assayas’ complex backstage drama covers a lot of the same thematic territory as Birdman (2014), but thankfully does so with far less bombast and far more grace and profundity. Juliette Binoche stars as an actress returning to the play that launched her career decades earlier, though she will now be playing the role of her previous character’s older lover. Much of the film revolves around Binoche and her personal assistant Kristen Stewart running lines from the play, and Assayas effortlessly achieves a lot of low-key surreal effects by playfully blurring the lines between the characters from the play, the characters Binoche and Stewart are playing in the movie, and the real-life Binoche and Stewart. Thankfully Assayas mostly sidesteps superficial meta effects and instead makes a fluid and witty essay about the state of popular culture. B+

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000, Hong Kong/China, 120 min.)
Viewed on Netflix        Second Viewing
Ang Lee’s widescreen epic aspires to be nothing less than the Gone with the Wind (1939) of wuxia films, and thankfully feels emboldened rather than weighed down by its sweeping romanticism. The fight scenes are among the most exciting in the history of the genre (even if legendary choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping arguably leans a bit too heavily on wire work), but it is the lavish production design and the atypically fine cast that elevate this past usual martial arts film standards. A-

The Last Five Years (Richard LaGravenese, 2015, USA, 94 min.)
Viewed On Demand    First Viewing
Though I’ve never seen it performed live, Jason Robert Brown’s stage musical The Last Five Years clearly loses something in translation to film. The play charts the dissolution of a marriage through a skewed chronology, with hotshot novelist Jamie and struggling actress Cathy taking turns narrating the story, he starting at the hopeful beginning and she starting at the bitter end and working backwards, only meeting on stage for one duet when their timelines briefly coincide. That poignant narrative conceit is absent in the film version, where Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick share screen time during virtually every musical number, with whichever partner isn’t signing usually relegated to reaction shots. Director Richard LaGravenese’s lack of stylistic flair has the benefit of allowing the viewer to focus on the fine score (and Kendrick’s very strong performance), but there’s no doubt that this is an inferior version of the material. C+

Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, 1973, UK, 122 min.)
Viewed on Blu-Ray     Second Viewing
Roger Moore’s first outing as James Bond marks a confident and pleasurable change in tone for the series. Whereas the sole George Lazenby Bond vehicle On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) wavers awkwardly between being a “realistic” spy picture and a winking tribute to the Sean Connery films, Live and Let Die commits fully to outrageous camp. By the time Bond is jumping across the backs of alligators to cross a river the film may as well be set in the Austin Powers universe. The silliness may offend the portion of the fan base who take 007 too seriously, but the tone is perfectly suited to Moore’s relaxed take on the character, and it’s nice to see a Bond film that’s simply designed to be fun. A lengthy speedboat chase through a Louisiana bayou is one of the best action sequences in the whole series, and the ludicrous death of Yaphet Kotto’s character has to be seen to be believed. B

Macbeth (Orson Welles, 1948, USA, 107 min.)
Viewed on Turner Classic Movies       Second Viewing
The first of Orson Welles’ three Shakespeare films is the least celebrated, even by Welles scholars, but it is another exciting example of the director-writer-actor reinventing the rules of cinema on the fly. Welles creates a disconcerting atmosphere by turning old Western sets into expressionistic gothic landscapes, and by having his cast lip sync their dialogue to a pre-recorded track. It’s true that the performances aren’t quite up to par with Welles’ usual standards – Jeanette Nolan particularly stands out as an inadequate Lady Macbeth – but on a formal level this is totally different than (but equally as interesting as) anything he ever made. B+

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942, USA, 88 min.)
Viewed on a DVR ripped from Turner Classic Movies           Latest of Many Viewings
Orson Welles’ adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel was famously damaged by RKO Studios, who cut nearly half of Welles’ original edit and tacked on a ludicrous happy ending after a disastrous test screening. But even in compromised form Ambersons is Welles’ most potent evocation of a lost Eden, with his most daring manipulation of audience sympathies. Tim Holt’s protagonist is a spoiled and unlikeable rich kid, but it’s hard not to be moved by the gradual loss of his beautiful horse and buggy world as the pollution and crassness of modern industry is ushered in by kindly automobile pioneer Joseph Cotton. Few films have evoked the passage of time as gorgeously or as sadly as this one, or given such a fully fleshed view of a vanishing way of life. A

Une chambre en ville (Jacques Demy, 1982, France, 94 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus  First Viewing
Jacques Demy returned to the style of his most popular work The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) with this musical melodrama. Once again all of the dialogue is sung to a non-stop musical background, though this time the story is considerably darker and incorporates everything from workers’ strikes to prostitution to suicide. The brutal material isn’t as natural a fit for the aesthetic as Cherbourg’s wistful melancholia was – though a violent domestic dispute, staged as a series of shot-reverse shots where each party is yelling directly at the camera, is a dazzling highlight – but it’s often fascinating to watch Demy push the limits of his signature aesthetic with this grim story. B

Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954, Italy, 83 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus  First Viewing
Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders play a married couple whose relationship becomes strained when they travel to Italy to sell off a deceased relative’s villa. The shifting terrain of the country becomes a metaphorical reflection of the state of their relationship; the desolation of Pompeii, for example, provides the backdrop for their lowest point. Clearly this is a case of real-life married couple and creative partners Bergman and Roberto Rossellini working out their issues on camera, but thankfully this is a touchingly intimate look at marital challenges rather than a navel-gazing wallow in misery, and it builds to a sweet finale that feels believable even as it’s presented as a miracle. B+