Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

The Champ (King Vidor, 1931, USA, 86 min.)
Viewed on DVD             First Viewing
This sentimental tearjerker about a washed-up alcoholic boxer (Wallace Beery) and his adoring son (Jackie Cooper) became a hit due to the undeniable chemistry between its two stars.  Despite its vaunted reputation, King Vidor’s film is a fairly generic old-fashioned weepie, distinguished only by Beery and Cooper’s charismatic performances.  C+

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014, USA, 148 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is surprisingly shaggy and aimless considering its lofty pedigree.  As a tale of a stoner detective getting in over his head in a confounding conspiracy, it’s less funny than The Long Goodbye (1973) or The Big Lebowski (1998), and less profound than Cutter’s Way (1981) or A Scanner Darkly (2006).  Joaquin Phoenix does his best to hold the film together on sheer quirky magnetism, and many members of the supporting cast, particularly Josh Brolin as a square police officer, are allowed a few funny moments as well.  Unfortunately all of the talent on display is wasted on what amounts to a thin string of intermittently amusing non sequiturs signifying nothing.  C+

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014, USA, 100 min.)
Viewed On Demand       First Viewing
This hyperactive computer animated kids movie is more diverting than it has any right to be, thanks to the talents of Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (who also helmed the recent 21 Jump Street movies) and a vibrant voice cast of top comic actors.  But it’s still a glorified toy commercial.  C

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Extended DVD Editions)
Consisting of
The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001, New Zealand, 178 min.)
The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002, New Zealand, 179 min.)
Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003, New Zealand, 200 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 Second Viewings of Each (first viewing of extended DVD edits)
Peter Jackson’s truly epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated fantasy novels is one of the most impressively massive undertakings in the history of blockbuster filmmaking.  Jackson captures the huge scope of Tolkien’s world while still streamlining the stories enough to fit them comfortably onscreen.  (Indeed, there is far less extraneous material in the entire nine-and-a-half hour extended DVD edition version of the trilogy than in any one of the director’s three subsequent Hobbit films).  A sophisticated blend of old-fashioned live action filmmaking and state of the art CGI work makes the film’s Middle Earth as convincing as it is fantastical, and the fine ensemble cast lends a gravity to the story that makes it feel like more than just a string of enormous set pieces.  The character Gollum, rendered through a seamless integration of Andy Serkis’ motion-captured acting and CGI, feels so fully fleshed out that he scarcely registers as a special effect.  This is one of the definitive works of bigscreen fantasy, full of action, drama, humor and wonder.  A-

Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984, USA, 141 min.)
Viewed on DVD                 First Viewing
John Cassavetes’ penultimate film is intensely personal and intimate even by the actor-writer-director’s usual standards (it was even shot largely in his actual home).  Unfortunately Cassavetes’ habit of allowing scenes to play out until he and his costars have wrung the maximum amount of emotion out of them occasionally makes Love Streams a chore to sit through.  For every crackling sequence, such as Cassavetes’ epically drunken attempt to seduce a disinterested nightclub singer (Diahnne Abbott), there are several others that ramble on shapelessly.  The actors are given so much room to do interesting, unpredictable things that the film’s grounding in reality sometimes slips away; Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands’ lead characters are emotionally damaged and socially stunted to the point that they don’t always feel like credible human beings.  Yet for all its messiness Love Streams is undeniably very affecting during the moments when it’s firing on all cylinders, and it certainly couldn’t have been made by anyone else.  B-

The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, 2014, USA, 91 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            First Viewing
There is an overabundance of American independent films about unfulfilled couples, but few explore relationships in as unique a manner as Charlie McDowell’s feature film debut.  Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss star as a couple who go to a weekend retreat to attempt to rejuvenate their marriage, only to find that they each have mysterious doppelgangers waiting for them in the guest house.  The lookalikes provide Duplass and Moss with their idealized versions of their respective partners, each more accommodating and fun than their day-to-day counterparts.  Screenwriter Justin Lader has a lot of fun stretching and contorting this unusual premise, as the characters become attracted to their spouse’s doppelganger or jealous of their own.  The high concept works because it is used in service of character development for Duplass and Moss, at least until the climax strains a little too hard to explain exactly what’s going on.  Duplass and Moss prove impressively versatile in their dual roles, and manage to hold the screen engagingly by themselves for almost the entire runtime (Ted Danson plays their marriage counselor, but his role amounts to a cameo).  This is one of the most underrated movies of 2014; had this been on my radar in time for my year-end list it would’ve ranked in the top 10.  B+

Selma (Ava Duvernay, 2014, USA, 123 min.)
Viewed Theatrically         First Viewing
Ava Duvernay’s look at Martin Luther King’s efforts to secure equal voting rights is unmistakably an overly earnest prestige film, but it distinguishes itself from other biopics in a few intelligent ways.  Rather than attempting to squeeze all of the Civil Rights leader’s life into two hours, the film focuses exclusively on King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, and is more detailed and interesting as a result.  It also presents the Civil Rights movement as a contentious tug of war between different factions making strategic political decisions rather than presenting them as a homogenized force of good, introducing a bit more moral and political complexity to what might have been a tame history lesson.  Despite all this, Selma still suffers from some of the same problems as every Oscar hopeful, from its generic emotion-stoking musical score to the distracting presence of big names like Oprah Winfrey and Martin Sheen in cameo roles.  David Oyelowo does the best job that anyone could reasonably be expected to do as Dr. King, though the portrayal of one of the most recognizable media personalities of all time is inevitably not fully convincing.  B-

You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert, 1967, UK, 117 min.)
Viewed on Netflix            Second Viewing
The fifth James Bond film is a solidly entertaining entry that fires on all cylinders as an action picture despite featuring some of the most blatant jingoism in the series’ history.  (Though the story is primarily set in Japan, MGM should probably pay reparations to the entire continent of Asia for Bond’s early commentary about the taste of Chinese girls).  Many of the series’ tropes find their ideal form here.  The Nancy Sinatra-sung theme song is great, the supervillain Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) is the best and most iconic of the Bond villains, the Bond girl (Mia Hama) has the awesomely ridiculous character name Kissy Suzuki, Sean Connery demonstrates again that he is the most charismatic Bond, and the climactic action sequence in an active volcano is a memorable set piece.  B-

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