Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Split

Three teen-aged girls are kidnapped from the parking lot of a restaurant and held captive by a man (James McAvoy) with dissociative identity disorder, 23 distinct personalities to be exact, who converses with his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) while trying both to cultivate and ward off the monstrous, superhuman 24th temperament that is quickly emerging. After years of poor reviews, misguided genre exercises, and big budget flops, Split is a mostly welcomed return to form for M. Night Shyamalan thanks largely to an amusing, winning performance from McAvoy, in a turn that could have easily been laughable, Anya Taylor-Joy's presence as the focal victim, and the subplot involving Buckley. The finale is unsatisfying and too simply arrived at, as is a post credits cameo which is supposedly leading to a tie-in feature involving one of the director's previous films.
*** out of ****

Sunday, June 18, 2017

It Comes at Night

In a desolate modern world ravaged by plague and just following being forced to dispatch their infected patriarch, a family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) living in their forested compound is visited by a desperate intruder (Christopher Abbott) who could spell either boon or doom to their dire condition. Following a similar pattern to many recently acclaimed horror films, It Comes at Night starts out promising, crafting a claustrophobic and atmospheric setting but has absolutely no idea where it wants to go, ultimately leading to unremarkable places that would feel right at home on an episode of The Walking Dead.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I, Daniel Blake

After suffering a heart attack on the job, a marginalized widowed carpenter (Dave Johns) attempts to maintain his dignity while being forced to jump through hoop after hoop to qualify for disability benefits while befriending a downtrodden single mother (Hayley Squires) up against the same bludgeoning system. With a rich, humanistic performance from Johns, Ken Loach's minimalist story, which resonates all the more in its few powerful moments, hits the nail on the head with its attacks on a steely, uncaring bureaucracy but is surprisingly artificial in the trite scenarios involving Squires. An especially Loachian finale is riotous, solemn, and embraceable.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, June 9, 2017

Diary of a Country Priest

A young, unpracticed cleric (Claude Laydu), dogged by a stomach ailment which threatens his day-to-day duties, deals with indifference, contempt, and threats of scandal from parishioners at his new pastoral posting. From a novel by Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest is challenging, harsh, protracted, austere, and pristinely filmed, all the elements underlining Robert Bresson's masterful body of work.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Secrets & Lies

A broken London family, including a well-to-do, people pleasing middle class photographer (Timothy Spall), his barren, melancholic wife (Phyllis Logan), his emotionally unbalanced, project housed single parent sister (Brenda Blethyn) and her miserable daughter (Claire Rushbrook), reaches a catharsis when a black optometrist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) enters their lives, claiming to be the abandoned daughter of the sister. Lengthy and deliberate Mike Leigh effort is emotional and involving with a tremendous cast (really every principle performance is top caliber) and punctuated by sublime moments of revelation and welcomed detours. Spall's culminating speech is both beautiful and transcendent.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Great Santini

A decorated Marine fighter pilot (Robert Duvall) commands his family and his oldest son (Michael O'Keefe) in particular with the same fierceness and determination he does his own troops as they adjust to life following their latest move to a Southern military town. Lewis John Carlino trims the fat of Pat Conroy's bloated and overwritten autobiographical novel and winds up with a too sanitized but nonetheless likable look at a dysfunctional father/son relationship. Duvall's ardent and comical role is up there with his best and O'Keefe contributes a surprisingly strong youth performance.
*** out of ****

Monday, June 5, 2017

Get Out

Against his better judgement and the jocular warnings of a friend, a black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) leaves the city and travels with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her moneyed parents (Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford) at their secluded estate and finds his worst fears realized when backslapping and phony attempts at bonding turn into something far more sinister. Jordan Peele's Get Out makes amusing and sardonic commentary on progressive attitudes towards race but as a horror movie—for which it was heavily billed—is dearly lacking, with way too much set-up, even well after the audience knows what's going on, and a spectacularly unimaginative and routine ending. Kaluuya makes a commiserable and personable lead.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Edge

While vacationing at an Alaskan lodge during a photo shoot, a pragmatic, solitary billionaire (Anthony Hopkins)--with a steel trap mind when it comes to survivalist tidbits--naturally finds himself lost in the wild with a sleek photographer (Alec Baldwin) who may or may not have eyes for his trophy wife (Elle Macpherson) and fortune and might prove a bigger threat than the 2,000 pound, flesh eating Kodiak bear stalking their every move.  Even with its rustic, prepossessing location shooting, exciting action sequences, and rugged subject, The Edge misses the point somewhat by deprioritizing the fact that at its heart this is essentially a two-man David Mamet battle of wills play which is evident in director Lee Tamahori's occasional misdirection of his actors (who are mostly great) and a lack of emphasis on the punchy dialogue.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, May 26, 2017

Primary Colors

A idealistic, small-time staffer (Adrian Lester) is recruited to join the Presidential campaign of a magnetic Democratic Southern governor (John Travolta) and, after quickly believing he may be the real deal, signs on as campaign manager and even more rapidly finds himself covering up his new boss' sexual escapades. When their opponent unexpectedly (and fortuitously) exits the race, an old hand politico (Larry Hagman) steps in, galvanizes his position, and leads the campaign on a muck finding mission led by a deranged but brilliant former ally (Kathy Bates) which leads to dark, compromising places of the American political abyss. Based on a novel by Joe Klein (originally published under Anonymous) detailing Bill Clinton's 1992 run, Primary Colors is an exemplary political satire. With a funny, adept, and ultimately sorrowful script by Elaine May and sharp direction from Mike Nichols, the film knows its territory and contains deeply invested, humanized characters. Travolta's performance is one of his best, Emma Thompson is excellent as the Hillary cipher, Billy Bob Thronton hilarious in the James Carville role, and Bates and Hagman both heartrending in standout performances.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Gentleman's Agreement

A California journalist (Gregory Peck) heads to New York to write for a liberal digest and labors over how to approach his new assignment in exposing anti-Semitism in many variants in society until it hits him: attack it like every one of his acclaimed exposés, by getting down to the ground level, and feign being Jewish himself. Age shows on this Elia Kazan Best Picture Oscar winner and it grows tiresome and overly preachy with a bland Peck at his most rigid. The screenplay however is utterly thorough and explores its subject through many angles and lenses.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The 39 Steps

Shots ring out in a London Vaudevillian theater, an attempt to create a distraction by a female agent who finds herself in the flat of one the show’s attendees (Robert Donat). Now, he is thrust into the serpentine plot that takes him to the Scottish Mores where he is both pursuing and pursued by the deadly, clandestine eponymous spy ring. Slyly conceived and brilliantly realized, The 39 Steps is a supreme entertainment that anticipated not just some of Alfred Hitchcock's future work but also inspired many successful, subsequent thrillers.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

20th Century Women

A product of the Depression Era, an older mother and single parent (Annette Bening) attempts to understand her punk influenced adolescent son (Lucas Jade Zumann) who seeks guidance from a sickly artistic tenant (Greta Gerwig), an aloof maintenance man (Billy Crudup), and an advanced peer (Elle Fanning) in 1979 Santa Barbara. Phony, magniloquent Mike Mills production, who took nearly the exact same approach with Beginners (ostensibly depicting his father, here his mother), is the kind of material with appeal solely for West Coast liberals and middle-aged Gen-Xers. Bening delivers a nice performance and helps buoy the film along with Gerwig and Zumann. Sean Porter's photography helps too.
** out of ****

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rules Don't Apply

One of the many starlets (Lily Collins) on Howard Hughes's payroll lives by the stringent rules accorded by the aging, shadowy, and eccentric billionaire (Warren Beatty), which includes not dating your assigned driver and personal spy, in her case a straight-edged, business driven Christian (Alden Ehrenreich). Beatty's self-aggrandizing, first directorial effort in almost twenty years is a strange, tonally shifting, and shamefully bad screwball comedy that only conjures up memories of Scorsese's The Aviator, a vastly superior Hughes picture. Only Ehrenreich keeps the picture afloat.
* out of ****

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Patriots Day

Fresh off suspension and nursing a bum knee, a police sergeant (Mark Wahlberg) somehow manages to be present at every turn of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing five day highly coordinated search for the treacherous, radicalized suspects. Overcooked Boston elements, too many liberal platitudes and speeches, and an epilogue that just will not end mar Peter Berg's latest Wahlberg starring tragic recent news rehashing. Pretty much what you'd expect except the manhunt sequences are surprisingly thrilling and the saga is surgically recreated and aided by true life surveillance footage.
** 1/2 out ****

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Anne of the Thousand Days

With Katharine of Aragon past her child bearing years and failing to produce a male heir, Henry VIII (Richard Burton) sets his sights on the beautiful young Anne Boleyn who successfully manipulates him to seek divorce, thus breaking with the Catholic Church while warring with Spain. She proves no match, however, to his uncontrollable jealousy and madness and the wiles of his brilliant, unscrupulous adviser Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos) when the marriage proves just as fruitless as the first. Sometimes intriguing but mostly forgettable entry of the oft-filmed story which has had a resurgence lately (i'd recommend Wolf Hall for a better treatment) and pales in comparison to other castle intrigues of the era (Lion in Winter, A Man for All Seasons). Burton is strong but probably miscast and Bujold makes a lifeless Boleyn.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Man Called Ove

A recently widowed curmudgeonous engineer (Rolf Lassgard), made redundant by technology, finds himself lording over his condo association and continually failing at taking his own life until he is given purpose by the newly arrived kindly and forthright next door neighbors. Soupy Swedish export is easy, cliched, PC, tear jerking material, the cinematic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, though Lassgard is excellent and the movie is amusing in bits and admittedly hard to dislike.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Learning Tree

A principled black teen in 1920s rural Kansas looks forward to leaving his close-minded community, while savoring its life lessons and positives aspects, while witnessing a headstrong peer being driven towards a life of crime and poverty. In adapting his own autobiographical novel, Gordon Parks was involved in just about every aspect of the film's creation, including producing, writing, directing, and scoring the music while at the same time becoming the first black director of a major studio picture. That being said, The Learning Tree is an involving message movie with familiar elements that goes its own route, sometimes explicitly, which must have been eye-opening in its era. A genuine cast helps too.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Christine

A high-strung TV newswoman (Rebecca Hall) prone to depression finds herself butting heads with the station manager (Tracy Letts) over the lack of exploitative angles in her stories and rejected by the lead anchor (Michael C. Hall) before sending shockwaves across the country in a live, desperate act. Christine (not to be confused with the Stephen King killer car movie) manages to make intelligent observations about mental illness, sexism, and careerism on top of the more obvious point of news sensationalism while leading towards a shocking denouement that is actually enhanced by beforehand knowledge of the story. Rebecca Hall's performance seems awkward initially but eventually clicks, generating empathy, and she is given fine support by Letts, Michael C. Hall (no relation), J. Smith-Cameron playing her mom, and Maria Dizzia as a concerned coworker. An unemphasized 70s soundtrack also contributes nicely.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War

Prominent Massachusetts Methodists Waitstill and Martha Sharp risk their lives and ultimately sacrifice their marriage and much of their own savings in order to personally assist the exodus of hundreds of refugees as Hitler increases his territorial holdings in Greater Europe. Directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War is a cheaply made, limited telling of an intense story of selfless heroism, which opts mostly for testimonials and almost entirely forgoes any opportunities the story offers for intrigue.
** out of ****

Monday, April 17, 2017

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Against orders, Kirk and his crew smuggle the Enterprise away from headquarters in order to retrieve Spock's corpse from Planet Genesis as the presumed dead doctor's consciousness seems to have taken over Bones. Meanwhile, with the Klingons closing in, Kirk's son leads a separate expedition exploring the rapidly evolving characteristics of the targeted planet. Leonard Nimoy directed this supremely uninspired installment, which has been credited by some for keeping with the spirit of the series and for its admittedly strong special effects, though the movie is awfully uneventful, cheesy, and sluggish.
** out of ****

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Prince of Egypt

All but forgotten recent Disney retelling of the Exodus story and the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt is a straightforward presentation with surprisingly strong animation and a fine cast of voice actors led by Val Kilmer as Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, though the picture is dogged by a lacking Stephen Schwartz soundtrack that heavily and humorously knocks off Les Mis.
*** out of ****

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Baraka

An erupting volcano, Manhattan traffic, Eastern temples, sites of war atrocities, an African tribal ritual and many more events ranging from mundane to the extraordinary make up Ron Fricke's free flowing, non narrative documentary. Consisting of the highest visual quality--you could even mistake it for an episode of Planet Earth, which is saying something considering it was shot over 25 years ago on 70mm--Baraka boasts wondrous and even breathtaking imagery but is awfully broad and incohesive.
*** out of ****

Friday, April 14, 2017

Waking Life

7/17/10 Waking Life is about a young man caught in a series of dreams who meets several people and listens to their philosophies on life while he formulates his own opinions. Director Richard Linklater, who may be the most innovative and experimental director working today, created this marvel of a movie by filming it with a digital camera and having dozens of writers animate the film while adding their own trippy spins. This is a thinking person's movie and is not for everyone. However, it is a movie that can be watch casually or intensely, and can be revisited many times. Waking Life is a little gem of a movie that each person should at least tempt to watch. Look for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who make a welcome reprise of their characters from Before Sunrise.
***1/2 out of ****

Magnolia

The lives of ten quasi related Los Angeleans, most with some connection to a long running children's quiz show, are put through the emotional ringer on a long, rainy day as they face personal and past revelations that reach a literal biblical proportion. Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliantly directed, captivating, and draining pastiche is remarkably only barely marred by its extreme length and aptitude for pretentiousness and self-indulgence. While some of the actors are hard to stomach (Juliane Moore, Melora Walters), most are tremendous including Philip Baker Hall, Melinda Dillon, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a fierce, highly charged, career-topping turn as a misogynistic self-help sex guru.
**** out of ****

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Lady Vanishes

After being snowed in at a remote Eastern European inn, almost all the members of a passenger train have a motive for concealing their awareness of the existence of a sweet little old lady who seemingly vanished into thin air while a recent acquaintance (Margaret Lockwood) and a cynical musician (Michael Redgrave) suspect a conspiracy and attempt to rally a search party. Sharp and witty, early pre-Hollywood Hitchcock success is a crisply made mystery and veritable entertainment. Lockwood and Redgrave shine in the leads and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne stand out as nitwit, cricket obsessed travelling companions.
**** out of ****