Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Last 10 Movies I Watched

Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, 2015, South Africa, 120 min.)
Viewed Theatrically     First Viewing
Neill Blomkamp’s tale of an artificially intelligent and emotive robot harkens back to the style of his acclaimed debut District 9 (2009). The director’s skill at combining utterly convincing CGI with documentary-style location shooting remains impressive, but feels less distinctive the second time around. While District 9’s political message was muddled, it at least felt like Blompkamp was attempting to make a statement with that film, whereas Chappie is constantly raising political and existential dilemmas that it has no interest in exploring (and that countless other sci-fi films have already had more interesting takes on). The titular robotic character has some charm thanks to the combination of incredible robotic effects and the voice acting of Blompkamp regular Sharlto Copley, but the human characters are universally one-note and unlikeable. C

The Guest (Adam Wingard, 2014, USA, 99 min.)
Viewed on DVD                       First Viewing
A former soldier (Dan Stevens) is welcomed into the home of the beleaguered Peterson family, under the pretense that he was a friend of their son who died in action. Revealing much more about the plot would be spoiling the fun, since much of this tautly crafted thriller’s suspense (and dark humor) lies in the mystery of the titular character’s motivations, but suffice to say that his confident good old boy demeanor seems less charming and more unnerving as the story develops. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett (following up on their entertaining 2011 horror film You’re Next) are a bit too reverent to their ‘80s exploitation film inspirations (down to the presence of a very John Carpenter-esque synth score), but their slow-burn plotting and mastery of tone assure that the film is gripping even when it feels like a pastiche. B

India Matri Bhumi (Roberto Rossellini, 1959, Italy/France, 90 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus   First Viewing
In the late ’50 Italian Neorealist leader Roberto Rossellini was hired by the Prime Minister of India to make a film promoting India’s culture to the global intelligentsia. For its first five minutes the resulting film feels like the generic travelogue that Indian officials were no doubt expecting, but it quickly turns into something more sublime and unusual: a freewheeling anthology film that mixes documentary and fiction in innovative and often fascinating ways. The content ranges from footage of elephants being used as bulldozers for the logging industry to a somber story about a dam worker’s domestic issues after his job necessitates relocating his family (perhaps in oblique reference to the marital problems that Rossellini was having with Ingrid Bergman around this time) to a fable about a performing monkey that joins the circus after its master dies. Some of the material is more interesting than others, but it is all gorgeously filmed and imbued with Rossellini’s customary curiosity and humanism. B+

It Follows  (David Robert Mitchell, 2014, USA, 100 min.)
Viewed Theatrically     First Viewing
David Robert Mitchell’s riveting thriller is the rare horror film that simultaneously boasts a unique concept, a depth of feeling for its characters, and genuine scares. A deadly curse is sexually transmitted, with each victim being pursued by a slow-moving, shape-shifting demon that can be easily outrun but never entirely shaken off. The plot sounds like a silly gimmick in its broad outlines, but Mitchell makes it work by preserving the mystery of the curse’s origins and by slowly building an atmosphere of nearly unbearable dread. Many horror films exploit teenage sexuality, but Mitchell’s film is refreshingly respectful and sympathetic towards its characters’ excitement and frustration. The investment in the characters makes the big scare sequences that much more intense. The uncommon level of pathos and the beautiful shot compositions can’t entirely overcome some of the goofier aspects of the premise – the handful of scenes showing inanimate objects being thrown around by an unseen force are inevitably cheesy – but overall this is the freshest horror film in recent memory. A-

Kingsman:  The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2015, UK, 129 min.)
Viewed Theatrically     First Viewing
This awkwardly titled homage to the British superspy genre is surprisingly irreverent and fun by major studio blockbuster standards. Proudly crude and often brazenly eccentric, Kingsman feels refreshingly free of attempts at cross-demographical commercial appeal. The story, concerning a street kid (charismatic newcomer Taron Eggerton) who is inducted into a powerful group of secret agents, is ultimately nothing more than goofy wish-fulfillment, but it delivers that fantasy with energizing punk rock energy. Co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn (adapting a Mark Millar graphic novel) is thankfully less interested in providing hyperactive CGI spectacle than in filling out the bizarre details of the film’s setting. How many other mainstream action pictures feature a dramatic close-up of a pug’s face as it’s threatened at gunpoint, a lisping supervillain (Samuel L. Jackson) who has McDonald’s served to him on a silver platter, or a lengthy sequence where a bunch of people’s heads explode into fireworks? B-

Marketa Lazarova (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967, Czechoslovakia, 162 min.)
Viewed on Hulu Plus   First Viewing
This mysterious and moody medieval mind-fuck is often considered the greatest of all Czech films, though it often seems less ambiguous than unintelligible. The plot, which the credits note is “adapted freely” from a 1931 novel by Vladislav Vancura, has something to do with a tribal war between a group of Christians and a group of pagans, but director Frantisek Vlacil’s hallucinogenic approach to storytelling and relentless digressions make it hard (and sometimes tedious) to follow what’s going on. What is abundantly clear, even inarguable, is that Marketa Lazarova is formally astounding, with unbelievably rich black and white shot compositions that rival those in Andrei Rublev (1966) and The Turin Horse (2011) for hypnotic visual splendor.  B

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969, UK, 142 min.)
Viewed on DVD                       Second Viewing
The first James Bond picture without Sean Connery is often considered a high-water mark for the series, but while it’s undeniably an oddity within the series’ canon it’s also filled with flaws that prevent it from being among 007’s best. Tonally the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a gritty, less gadget-heavy action film in the mold of the recent Daniel Craig entries or a campy, self-referential caper in the style of the Roger Moore era. Structurally the film is very oddly paced, with an interminable period of exposition before any significant action scenes appear. The plot makes very little sense, and revolves partially around a thinly-disguised Bond and his arch-nemesis Blofeld not recognizing each other despite the fact that they were antagonists in the previous Bond adventure You Only Live Twice (1967). Perhaps they don’t recognize each other because they are portrayed this time by George Lazenby and Telly Savalas, both of whom are significant downgrades from Connery and Donald Pleasance. Viewers may wish that Diana Rigg, quite possibly the most capable Bond girl in the history of the series, was the focus. Thankfully the film does build up to a long and satisfying series of Winter Olympics-style action set pieces that make tremendous use of the Swiss Alps setting, but the wait to get there is long, convoluted, and often boring. C

Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957, Japan, 109 min.)
Viewed on Blu-Ray      Fourth Viewing
The greatest cinematic version of Macbeth is Akira Kurosawa’s horror and Noh-tinged Samurai drama. Rather than focus on the language of the play, Kurosawa emphasizes the story’s escalating dread and claustrophobia. The world seems to shrink around Toshiro Mifune’s power-hungry soldier as he simultaneously gains status and goes mad, building to a brilliant and brutal conclusion in which nature itself seems to be conspiring to thwart him. A

While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2014, USA, 94 min.)
Viewed Theatrically     First Viewing
Noah Baumbach’s comedy of generational warfare is sharp and funny when focusing on small details of Generation X and Millennial culture, but loses its way when it goes for big laughs. Scenes of the film’s older couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) attending a hip hop dance class or attending a New Age retreat feel almost embarrassingly broad in this otherwise low-key film. Stiller and Watts form an uneasy tenuous friendship with a young hipster couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) who both rejuvenate and confound them. Baumbach takes great pains to make his Gen X representatives (and ostensible stand-ins) look at least as petty and silly as the younger couple, but Driver and Seyfried’s characters aren’t sufficiently developed enough for some of the latter scenes to come off as anything other than bitter condemnations of an entire generation. C+

Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, 2014, Spain, 122 min.)
Viewed Theatrically     First Viewing
Damian Szifron wrote and directed all six segments of this revenge-obsessed anthology film, but the quality is still as uneven as we’ve come to expect from any collection of shorts. Fortunately the stories are arranged in an order that alternates the most entertaining sections with the ones that never quite hit the next gear. The highlights are a tale of road rage gone awry and a wedding reception where the groom inadvertently reveals his adultery to a very angry bride. B-

No comments:

Post a Comment