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-

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