Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014, USA, 132 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
Clint Eastwood’s factually shaky biopic about notoriously lethal Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) has proven divisive with audiences and cultural commentators, and artistically it also seems divided against itself.  The film subtly builds an intriguing thesis about Kyle’s old-fashioned cowboy heroism being out of place and ultimately useless in a messy, goalless war, but ultimately undercuts its potentially subversive message by shying away from the real man’s less heroic attributes (such as his xenophobia and fabulism) while offering a blanket depiction of Iraqis as sadistic savages.  The daring film that might have been pokes through during a few powerful depictions of PTSD and particularly during an intense sandstorm battle sequence that is surprisingly lyrical for a director who often favors a simple “point and shoot” aesthetic.  But in the end most of the moral conflict is obscured by a corny closing-credits hero’s funeral for the film’s protagonist.  C+

Bird People (Pascale Ferran, 2014, France, 127 min.)
Viewed on Netflix           First Viewing
This playful two-part tale of people trying desperately to break free of their limitations is a lightweight wisp of a film that doesn’t ultimately add up to much of a statement, but does take some intriguing stylistic risks along the way.  The first half is a somber, life-sized drama about an American computer engineer (Josh Charles) who abruptly decides, mid-Paris business trip, to quit his job and leave his wife (Radha Mitchell).  Part two is a comedic, fantastical story that follows a maid (Anais Demoustier) who suddenly and without explanation turns into a bird.  Each half of the film meanders too much, but the separate strengths of each are an impressive display of co-writer/director Pascale Ferran’s versatility, as she displays equal skill at navigating the uncomfortably realistic dialogue of the Skype-moderated dissolution of the engineer’s marriage and at handling the impressively seamless animal effects.  B-

Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson, 2015, USA, 125 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
Hollywood’s stubbornly un-erotic adaptation of E.L James’ best-selling novel about a sadomasochistic relationship devotes more of its runtime to interminable scenes about contract signing than it does to sex.  When the heavy-breathing scenes do finally appear they are tame and bland, with Dakota Johnson’s breasts supplying virtually all of the nudity even though the film is ostensibly aimed at a female audience.  Johnson at least brings some charisma to her role, while it’s not hard to imagine a dozen actors who might have been better at conveying the tortured mystery of the sadist than Jamie Dornan.  C-

Focus (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, 2015, USA, 105 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
No one will mistake this breezy romantic comedy about con artists falling in love for the second coming of Trouble in Paradise (1932), but the tight pacing and charismatic lead performances by Will Smith and Margot Robbie do feel like a throwback to an era when big budget films didn’t feel the need to be grim and endless.  (This is the first new film I’ve seen this year that runs under two hours, and one of the first that doesn’t feel weighed down by mounds of extraneous material).  Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa keep the proceedings lively and witty, and the film is consistently stylish, sexy and funny.  B

Jupiter Ascending (Andy & Lana Wachowski, 2015, USA, 127 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
Early looks at the Wachowskis’ long-delayed sci-fi epic suggested an energetically weird clusterfuck that could be this generation’s Zardoz (1974).  Sadly, the actual film is mostly a ponderous bore, with only Eddie Redmayne and Douglas Booth (who play rival heirs to the throne of Jupiter…or something) seeming to register the scenario’s potential for outrageous camp.  A basic chosen one-versus-ultimate evil scenario is slathered with confusing plot twists and an insanely byzantine mythology, but the gonzo details are mostly drowned out by overly familiar blockbuster elements like wall-to-wall CGI and an oppressively gloomy atmosphere.  C-

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014, Russia, 140 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
This seemingly simple tale about an ordinary man (Aleksey Serebryakov) trying to protect his seaside property from demolition proposed by the town’s mayor (Roman Madyanov) plays out as nothing less than a parable about the state of modern Russian life.  Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s trademark deliberate pacing prevents the film from having the urgency it needs to function as an effective state of the union address, and the mayor is too cartoonish a creep to serve as a credible antagonist, even as a stand-in for Vladimir Putin.  Still, the film is often engaging when it focuses on its frustrated protagonist and his strained interactions with his family and friends, and Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography is often breathtaking.  B-

A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956, France, 100 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus      Second Viewing
Robert Bresson’s ultra-austere essentialist aesthetic seems like it should render his films dull (and sometimes it does), but the absolute lack of filler in A Man Escaped is precisely what makes it the most gripping and moving of all prison break films.  The unwavering focus on a French Resistance member’s (Francois Letterier) methodical attempt to escape from a Nazi jail makes every small gesture and background noise feel tense.  Bresson’s aesthetic is distilled to such a pure form that A Man Escaped transcends its “art film” status and becomes one of the great white-knuckle suspense thrillers.  A

A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014, USA, 125 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) clings to the notion that his up-and-coming heating oil company has succeeded in spite of the ruthless criminal practices of his competitors, but writer-director J.C. Chandor keeps piling on the evidence that his success has less to do with his own hard work than with the unscrupulous accounting of his wife (Jessica Chastain) and the shady dealings of his business partner (Albert Brooks).  Chandor’s film never turns into a full-blown crime saga – though an exciting climactic car chase should be enough to satisfy any action fan – but the tightly coiled story provides a unique tension that is impressively sustained for over two hours.  The 1981 New York setting is so convincing that the film would actually feel like it were made in the ‘80s were it not for the presence of contemporary actors.  B

Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014, UK, 150 min.)
Viewed Theatrically        First Viewing
Mike Leigh’s account of the life of Romanticist landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) isn’t very effective as a biopic, offering neither a very clear recap of the events of the artist’s life or a thesis about the meaning of his work.  While there is a sense that Leigh never quite figured out why he wanted to focus on Turner, the film is nonetheless engrossing for reasons that seem almost incidental to its ostensible subject.  The film is a fascinating look at life in the 1800s, and is filled with bizarre details about a huge array of subjects ranging from the preparation of pig heads for meals to ancient methods of insect repellant to strange scientific theories about light.  Jacqueline Riding is credited with research, and her meticulous attention to detail brings the period to vivid life to a degree that is all too rare in films set in the past.  The film is also a marvel of formal delights, with Dick Pope’s stunning cinematography nearly replicating Turner’s Romanticist style without putting too fine a point on it.  B

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014, USA, 107 min.)
Viewed On Demand       First Viewing
Undoubtedly the most intense film ever set in the world of conservatory school jazz, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash follows the volatile relationship between a promising young drummer (Miles Teller) and his sadistically demanding conductor (J.K. Simmons).  The film plays out less as an inspirational teacher drama than as a brutal battle of wills akin to the drill sergeant section of Full Metal Jacket (1987).  Certainly the film features as much blood and sweat as the average war movie, and it’s edited with a machine-gun precision that matches the rhythms of Teller’s drum rolls.  The climax comes dubiously close to suggesting that abusive, socially alienating behavior is a necessary tradeoff for genius, but it is nonetheless a marvel of editing, sound mixing, and drumming.  B+

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