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-

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