Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Harakiri

A fallen ronin (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has lost everything, namely master, livelihood, and family, arrives at a lord's residence in order to commit seppuku, a ritual form of suicide. In an attempt to deter his actions, he is told of another recent samurai who made a similar request and was forced to carry out his demand, as he was suspected of attempting to fleece the manor by being turned away with riches. Instead, the noble ronin at the castle's doorstep has a more damning revelation about his relationship to the pitiable young man. Kobayashi's Harakiri is vivid, violent, and harsh, with an aim for calling out hypocrisy yet exists largely for generating empathy and is always utterly compelling, unfolding in a serpentine and novelistic fashion. Nakadai is excellent as the principled and vengeful warrior.
**** out of ****

Friday, January 5, 2018

Come and See

In Belarus in the heart of World War II and the German occupation, a teenager fights with the Russian Resistance, sees his family slaughtered, and bears witness to the unspeakable Nazi atrocities all around him. Harrowing,  nightmarish and occasionally consuming, Elem Klimov's Come and See is dense and murky, made with an impressively fluid camerawork though muddled photography, and contains the feel of an even more unrelentingly bleak Tarkovsky film with an ending that, depending how you interpret it, I'm not sure how useful it is.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Seven Days in May

Disarmament talks between Russia and an unpopular President (Fredric March) leads to rumors of a military coup led by a military demagogue (Burt Lancaster) and uncovered by his top aide (Kirk Douglas). John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May is a well-made, credible, and talky thriller that lacks suspense with the acting being the real attribute on display. Stars Douglas and Lancaster, though providing stalwart performances, are both relegated somewhat with supporters March and Edmund O’Brien stepping in with terrific turns.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Ghost Story

A musician (Casey Affleck) is killed in a car accident and, as a specter in a bedsheet with two eyeholes poked out, continues to haunt the house where he and his wife (Rooney Mara) lived through past, present, and future. David Lowery's A Ghost Story is pretentious, plotless, and self-satisfied filmmaking that tries to trick the audience into thinking that slow tracking shots and close-ups accompanied by sonorous chords equate to deep, meaningful art.
* out of ****

Friday, December 29, 2017

Planet of the Apes

An astronaut (Charlton Heston) exploring the vast reaches of space crash lands on a far off planet inhabited by a superior race of speech capable apes who keep primitive humans as slaves. Captured, tortured, and set for experimentation he now must prove his supremacy to his subjugators while discovering the horrible truth of this new land. Cheesy, shoddy looking, and carelessly directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with a hammy Heston performance, Planet of the Apes is still watchable and fun at first plus it contains the justifiably famous finale. Rod Serling’s dumb dialogue in a screenplay he cowrote from a Pierre Boulle novel belongs more so to his Twilight Zone than a full-length feature film.
** ½ out of ****

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Killer's Kiss

A washed-up boxer becomes involved with a troubled neighbor, herself currently mixed-up with the older, low-rent owner of a New York dance hall. Killer’s Kiss, an early noiry crisply shot production from Stanley Kubrick, feels like an underdeveloped student project with some really good parts (including an axe fight in a mannequin factory) that don’t really add up to a satisfying whole. It also feels long at 68 minutes, contains a whole lot of filler and an ill-advised happy ending.
** ½ out of ****

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

A U.S. Senator (James Stewart) travels to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of a rancher (John Wayne) and relays to reporters the legend of how, decades earlier, he made the same journey in hopes of using the law and democracy to civilize the territory, was menaced by a rabid outlaw (Lee Marvin), and given assistance from the recently deceased cattleman. John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a compulsively watchable (even during its filler sequences), beautifully shot black and white Western with one of the most memorable finales in history while bringing together the differing sensibilities of Stewart and Wayne. Marvin ranks up there as one of the nastiest baddies to ever grace the screen.
**** out of ****

Monday, December 25, 2017

Mon oncle Antoine

In a rural, asbestos mining Quebec town in the late 1940s, a young teenager becomes a man while working in his uncle and aunt's general store/mortuary during the Christmas Season as he serves a funeral, spies on a female customer, flirts with the same-age adoptive daughter of his employers, and discovers the truth about his personal relationships. Claude Jutra's mischievous though subtle and sensitive Mon oncle Antoine, is a profound and insightful coming of age story crafted with an exacting point of view, camerawork, and music.
**** out of ****

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Scrooge

Perennial Charles Dickens Christmas classic received a musical makeover in this 1970 Ronald Neame version that tries to recapture the magic of Oliver! even though the material doesn’t really call for it or need it. Further, the music is mostly forgettable except for the “Thank You Very Much” number which memorably features a tap dance on Scrooge’s coffin and a rollicking funeral parade. Albert Finney plays a surprisingly shrill and somewhat disappointing Scrooge and Alec Guinness is also a letdown as a droll Jacob Marley.
** ½ out of ****

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Smiles of a Summer Night

An attorney (Gunnar Bjornstrand), his young, virginal wife (Ulla Jacobsson), a vulnerable son returned home from college, their slatternly maid (Harriet Andersson), a visiting actress (Eva Dahlbeck), her officer lover (Jarl Kulle), and his troublemaker wife all converge on a country estate where various affairs come to light, jealousies and anguish abound, and tempers flair. Ingmar Bergman's first, liberating mass success is sharp, provocative, light, and amusing, made with delicate cinematography, and a game cast with Bergman regulars Bjornstrand and Andersson standing out and Kulle highly memorable as a caddish officer always seeking satisfaction. For a worthy reworking see Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.
*** out of ****

Friday, December 22, 2017

Darkest Hour

May 1940. With the Nazis beating the British Army back to the French shores and invasion imminent, Neville Chamberlain resigns as Prime Minister over calls for his ouster and accusations of appeasing Hitler. In his place steps the unlikely, unpopular in his own party, larger than life Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) who must not only lead an improbable evacuation at Dunkirk but convince the nation that the favored capitulation to Germany is the absolute wrong move. Darkest Hours loses steam and much of its impressively sustained intensity towards the finale (including an ill-advised scene of Churchill riding the Underground and gaining affirmation from the people before his big “On the Beaches” speech) but is extremely well crafted throughout by Joe Wright and Oldman, under half a ton of makeup, creates a full-bodied character and brings a full life force to the prime minister. The supporting class is excellent including Ben Mendelsohn as a disbelieving King George VI, Stephen Dillane as his cunning rival Viscount Halifax, and Kristin Scott Thomas as his loyal, secondary wife.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Casino Royale

After committing his final two, decidedly messy kills to achieve “00” status, Bond (Daniel Craig) is set on the trail of Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a bloody eyed money launderer for terrorists, which culminates in a high stakes Texas Hold ‘em style poker tournament in Montenegro, where he is monitored by a beautiful and tortured British Treasury agent (Eva Green). Casino Royale, a reboot to the long running series, is one of the best in the line thanks to a moody, vulnerable Craig, a gorgeous, similarly conflicted Green, meaningful dialogue, strong plotting, the usual set pieces, and a great villainous turn from Mikkelsen, who ranks in terms of the best Bond baddies. The film is also functional as a pretty decent poker movie.
 *** ½ out of ****

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Killing

Several character types are enlisted for an intricate robbery of the money room at a California horse track but the plan starts to unravel when the greedy, disloyal wife of one the culprits begins to poke her nose in. Presented in disjointed time at breakneck speed, extremely hard-nosed, and with a modern feel, Stanley Kubrick’s crisply shot and edited early work stands among the cream of other noirs produced during the period. In a cast of great faces and tough supporters, Sterling Hayden is a standout as the no nonsense leader, Elisha Cook, Jr. is memorable as the pushover counter worker, and Marie Windsor is excellent as his nefarious wife. The finale is jaw-dropping with a perfect ending and closing line.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Logan Lucky

Members of a thought to be cursed West Virginia family, a laid off mine worker (Channing Tatum), an Armed services amputee bartender (Adam Driver), and their lead-footed hairstylist sister (Riley Keough), team up with an incarcerated, explosives expert (Daniel Craig) to rob a motor speedway on the busiest day of the year by exploiting its underground pipe system used for cash depositing. Logan Lucky is a sometimes dumb but watchable and mostly satisfying heist movie, although its not a genre I’m keen to see Steven Soderbergh revisit after his brief retirement, even if it does play like Ocean’s 11 with a soul. While the A-list actors annoyingly employ hillbilly accents, Tatum carries the film well and its fun to watch Craig play a colorful, against type character.
*** out of ****

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Immortal Story

A rich, bitter, and spiteful old merchant of Macao (Orson Welles) hears the tale of a wealthy man hiring a sailor to impregnate his young wife and seeks to make it true, through the help of his assistant (Roger Coggio) and two young hires (Jeanne Moreau and Norman Eshley). Intriguing minor Wellesian concoction from an Isak Dinesen story feels like something only Welles himself could have cooked up, beautifully shot and directed with a unique and irresistible story.
 **** out ****

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Shape of Water

A lonely, mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) learns to communicate and eventually falls in love with the top secret Creature from the Black Lagoon currently being housed at the government aeronautics agency at which she works. Abused by the sadistic security man (Michael Shannon) and set for dismemberment, she resolves to free the creature with the help of a chatty coworker (Octavia Spencer) and her effete next door neighbor (Richard Jenkins). The Shape of Water seems like a retread of the overrated Pan's Labyrinth, and is another dark, dumbly written, strange for strange sake Guillermo del Toro reality set fairy tale that lacks the imagination that so many invest in his movies and the creativity the filmmaker so clearly believes is on display. Hawkins turns in a great silent, emotive performance and Jenkins and Shannon deliver their usual though still effective turns.
** out of ****

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Hobson's Choice

The drunken widowed owner (Charles Laughton) of a Victorian era London boot shop decides to marry off two of exasperating daughters while keeping his eldest Maggie (Brenda de Banzie) for her usefulness in running the business and taking care of himself. Instead, she opts to blaze her own trail by taking up with the simple bootmaker (John Mills) and put her father in a precarious, optionless situation. One of David Lean's rare forays into comedy, Hobson's Choice is a lighthearted work with a bit of gristle and vitriole boasting top of the line camerawork and black and white cinematography. Laughton is in rare, hilarious form and de Banzie and Mills round out the cast with complete, supreme performances.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, December 15, 2017

Contact

In lieu of a more lucrative career, a brilliant scientist (Jodie Foster) makes her living studying the stars and satellites for signs of extraterrestrial life, partly in an attempt to reach her parents whom she lost in childhood. When she discovers what appears to be an actual message from a star light years away with what appear to be contact instructions, it creates national hysteria over who should pay for the device, who should be the one to make the initial reception, and should we even partake in this particular endeavor. (spoilers) Based on Carl Sagan's book, Robert Zemeckis' Contact lacks the profundity it thinks it possesses in its religion vs science themes (in what is actually cornball philosophy) but the Foster performance is in earnest and her culminating intergalactic journey is remarkable.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Man Escaped

A Resistance member (Francois Letterier) is arrested by the Gestapo, charged with sabotage and sentenced to die, and placed in a concentration camp in Lyon, where over 7,000 perished during the war. There he painstakingly sweeps his cell to develop means of escape, meanwhile acting as an impetus of hope to his fellow prisoners. Robert Bresson’s A Man Escape is an exacting, inward looking meditation, both beautifully and meticulously shot while generating quiet and palpable suspense. Nonactor Letterier is tremendous and reflective as the saintly inmate.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Harlan County U.S.A.

Barbara Kopple’s film profiling a miner’s strike in Eastern Kentucky, an area of the country with a violent labor history, documents the harsh realities and becomes intimate with the impoverished, impassioned residents. The documentary makes fantastic use of local protest music and contains many memorable moments including life on the picket lines, a sheriff paying a visit in order to have an obstructing vehicle moved, a conversation between a miner and a New York City police officer, and the graphic return to the scene where a young man was shot and killed by company thugs.
*** ½ out of ****

Monday, December 11, 2017

Die Another Day

After being captured during a North Korean mission, 007 (Pierce Brosnan) is held in a prison camp for 14 months until traded for a terrorist with a diamond encrusted face (Rick Yune) and released. Now targeting his counterpart, he allies himself with a beautiful American agent (Halle Berry) and also sets his sights on a diamond merchant (Toby Stephens) who has funded a satellite with Earth destroying implications. Brosnan’s final Bond outing is also his worst, a dull, special effects heavy, and ludicrous (even by series standards) entry with forgettable villains and gorgeous Bond girls Berry and Rosamund Pike bringing little else to the proceedings.
** out of ****

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Scoop

A somewhat dippy, aspiring journalist (Scarlett Johansson) is picked out of the crowd of a hokey magician's (Woody Allen) London act to enter his mysterious vanishing chamber. Inside, a recently deceased newsman (Ian McShane) relays a tip he picked up in the afterlife: a respected socialite (Hugh Jackman) may in fact be the Tarot Card Killer preying upon the city's prostitutes. Allen has been down very similar terrain before (see Manhattan Murder Mystery and Shadows and Fog) and other over familiar elements are present as well but its still amiable fun with great cinematography showing off the city.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Departures

With his Tokyo symphony closing a young man (Masahiro Motoki) is forced to sell his cello, return home with his doting wife (Ryoko Hirosue), and find work. After answering a misleading want ad, he finds undesirable work that gives him great meaning in encoffinment, that is delicately and tenderly preparing corpses in a showing before cremation. Oscar winning Japanese foreign film is calculated with forced, unearned emotion but not without depth and a conclusion that is admittedly moving. The main actor is cartoonish but is surrounded by talented supporters.
*** out of ****

Friday, December 8, 2017

Shadow of a Doubt

With the police closing in on him, the Merry Widow Murderer (Joseph Cotten) travels cross country to his family home in Santa Rosa, California and the company of his adoring niece (Teresa Wright) who slowly begins to unravel the unsavory truth about her cagey and mysterious uncle. Alfred Hitchcock’s self-proclaimed favorite film is an ingeniously crafted, creatively detailed, and slyly subversive work with Wright assuredly carrying the film, Cotton making a sinister villain, and Hume Cronyn hysterically funny in his film debut as the next door neighbor with a predilection for the macabre.
**** out of ****

Thursday, December 7, 2017

High and Low

After just having secured the funds for a takeover of his shoe company, a businessman (Toshiro Mifune) is torn at having to pay the ransom when his son is kidnapped from their hilltop mansion. Matters become even more cloudy when it comes to light that his chauffer’s son and not his own has been taken, and the local police department launches a major dragnet in order to trap the killer. Kurosawa’s High and Low, from an American crime novel by Ed McBain is a measured, sporadically captivating police procedural, unsurprisingly incredibly photographed with Mifune unfortunately ultimately relegated to a minor role.
*** out of ****