Friday, May 31, 2013

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

A couple (Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner) spin a fantastical yarn to a disbelieving social worker (Shohreh Aghdashloo) detailing how, after receiving the devastating news that they were unable to conceive, had their dreams fulfilled when their ideal, ephemeral child appeared on their front porch. Peter Hedges's The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a soppy movie from Walt Disney, made in the same vein as their older live-action films, and features silly story elements and one-dimensional characters. It is funny in parts however and has its heart in the right place.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Third Man

An American writer (Joseph Cotten), author of pulpy, dime store novels, travels to postwar Vienna upon learning of the death of his friend Harry Lime. There he becomes involved in the investigation of his mysterious death, meets his friends and a girlfriend (Alida Valli), and learns the disturbing truth behind his disappearance and the illicit black market doings of his childhood pal. Carol Reed's The Third Man is a darkly atmospheric, cynical, and brilliantly directed film ingeniously written by Graham Greene. Featuring fine performances from Cotten, Valli, Trevor Howard, and a diabolical Orson Welles, whom you can't help but question how deep his involvement was with this production, with its off-centered camera and high-angled shots which so perfectly capture a desperate city as well the dark and shadowy essences of Noir. This is about as unforgettable as a film can get, and scenes like Welles' famous entrance, the Ferris wheel & cuckoo clock speech segment, the chase through the sewers, and Valli's haunting closing walk down the elm tree lined lane are just a few of its highlights.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sherman's March

When depressed filmmaker Ross McElwee leaves New York to return home South to film a documentary retracing General Sherman's infamous March to the Sea, he becomes sidetracked upon his girlfriend leaving him, and the project quickly devolves into a profile of the former flames he seeks out. Sherman's March is exorbitant, overlong, and occasionally amusing (particularly in a running gag involving Burt Reynolds) film that may have played better if I could have seen it removed from the memories of today's self-indulgent documentarians who pollute the field, the likes of which McElwee surely inspired.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

Scott Thorson, a lonely animal trainer (Matt Damon) living at home with his foster parents picks up a man at a gay bar and attends a live performance by Liberace (Michael Douglas), the flamboyant, world renowned concert pianist who in 1977 and late into his career is still keeping his homosexual lifestyle a secret from his fans.  When Scott gains access to his dressing room, the disparately aged men immediately embark on a bizarre and tumultuous relationship, ending in a public breakup and lawsuit, followed shortly by Liberace's death from AIDS complications in 1987. Behind the Candelabra is a competently made, often humorous  and shocking film from Steven Soderbergh, which is said to be his last. It features brave performances from Douglas and Damon, and amusing supporting work from Dan Aykroyd and Rob Lowe, all of whom carry the film through its narrowly focused narrative. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Paths of Glory

In the trenches of WWI, a vain and callous general (George Macready) orders of suicidal open field which ends with the expected, disastrous results. To save face, he orders his lieutenants to offer up three soldiers to be tried for their lives in a military tribunal, where they are to be defended by one of their commanding officers (Kirk Douglas), who is sickened by the way his military is conducting itself. Paths of Glory is harrowing and impeccably made antiwar classic from Stanley Kubrick, who adapted Humphrey Cobb's novel. It features extraordinary visuals, most notably in the charge sequence, and a range of great performances from a powerful Douglas to the despicable generals Macready and Adolphe Menjou to the trio of prisoners played by Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, and the very affecting Timothy Carey. It's denouement comes as a swift kick to the teeth and is followed by a brilliant, anomalous sequence that still offers a glimmer of hope. With Paths of Glory, one of the first films where he had both creative control and a budget, not only is Kubrick's technical prowess evident, he made a powerful and lasting statement on courage and cowardice.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Dark Horse

"We have central heating and a/c. What more could you ask for?"
An overweight man approaching middle age (Jordan Gelber) lives at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and in the looming shadow of his younger, successful doctor brother (Justin Bartha), works for his disapproving father, vigorously collects toys, and drives a decked out Hummer, which impresses no one but himself. He begins dating a  beautiful, drugged out, severely depressed woman (Selma Blair) which is certain to spell even more misery while fantasizing about a former, older coworker (Donna Murphy. Todd Solondz's "Dark Horse" is another savagely funny, but deeply empathetic film, where he continues to lambaste an artificial modern American culture and one that personally hits home in more ways than one. Not everything works in the film. I felt the more fantastical elements could have been eliminated entirely, but mostly Solondz hits the nail on head while eliciting a tremendous performance from Gelber. Also, the ending strikes a particularly emotional chord.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Coney Island

Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, at the southernmost part of Brooklyn near the western mass of Long Island, Coney Island is a small mass of land that at the end of the 19th Century became home to the first American theme park. Featuring amusements and sideshows, it was an incredibly celebrated destination for city residents and tourists, increasing in attendance every year, and fading just shortly after the close of World War II due the ever increasing mobility of society. Ric Burns' film is a loving profile of the beloved theme park, assembled from a wealth of footage which, somewhat perplexingly, doesn't always manage to completely capture one's full attention.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Raging Bull

Jake La Motta's violent and tempermental nature in the ring would spill over into his personal life causing him to hurt and alienate many of those close to him. Likewise, the insecurities and jealousies would not only destroy his personal life but cause him to implode in the ring as well. Raging Bull tells the story of La Motta's rise in the 1940s with the help of his manager kid brother. Tearing through opponents, he would eventually be crowned champ and marry the young girl of his dreams. Eventually, his greatest opponent would be himself and he would be left alone, broke, and overweight, a pathetitic nightclub act reciting Brando's lines from On The Waterfront to a desolate crowd of drunks. Martin Scorsese tells the tale of this ugly man using beautiful and graceful black and white cinematography from Michael Chapman seamlessly edited by Oscar winner and longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. Working from La Motta's memoirs and a script by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, Raging Bull is Martin Scorsese's masterpiece. Robert De Niro, in an Oscar winning role, wonderfully captures all of the horrible aspects and nuances of La Motta in his portrayal of the self-destructive man. Joe Pesci does fine work as his brother Joey and Cathy Moriarity is great as La Motta's envy inspiring bride. Raging Bull is a modern classic, but it is a difficult film as well. Not employing any of the cliches associated with the sports or biopic genres, and presenting tough material that causes the viewer to think, it is a great film on many levels.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mel Brooks: Make a Noise

From the day his cabbie uncle took him to see Anything Goes on Broadway, nine-year-old Melvin Kaminsky knew he was going to make it in show business, and that was that. Changing his name to Brooks, he set out with an almost obnoxious ferocity and unremitting humor on a career that has now spanned over seven decades. From writing on television for Sid Caesar, making immensely popular comedy albums with Carl Reiner, creating the TV series Get Smart, marrying and often collaborating with Anne Bancroft, his life's love, writing and directing classic, groundbreaking comedies (and some that weren't so hot), becoming a Hollywood player funding major projects for young directors such as David Lynch and David Cronenberg,  and reinventing himself in the theater with The Producers, he has more than followed through on his boyhood certainty. Although any documentary that features an interview with the comedy legend and many clips from his films is guaranteed to contain more than a handful of laughs, Robert Trachtenberg's Mel Brooks: Make a Noise barely scratches the surface, divulging surprisingly few details of his work and personal life.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


With momentum and confidence on his side, Robert E. Lee marched his Army of Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley in what he believed would be a final death blow to the North. Meeting General Meade's Army in a small Pennsylvania township on a sweltering July day in 1863, they began a bloody three day battle where an ill-fated charge and a heroic, textbook military maneuver led by a Maine schoolteacher would turn the tide of the war and the country forever. Based on Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels, Gettysburg is a reverent, meticulous, four and a half hour recreation of the red letter battle of The Civil War, that features some incredible battle scenes, most notably in Little Round Top and Pickett's Charge. The acting is mixed bag: Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Tom Berenger as James Longstreet are particular standouts while others fall prey to histrionic grandstanding, or as in the case of Martin Sheen playing Lee, are woefully miscast. The film is also rife with pious, overblown speeches and goes way out of its way to offer a Southern rationalization. In the end, I appreciated the painstaking reenactment efforts, but felt they would have been better served in the reenactment battlefield and not for a feature length picture.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

I'm Not There.

Todd Haynes' I'm Not There attempts to examine the life of Bob Dylan by telling a story in which six actors in separate vignettes play different aspects of his personality. Please excuse this clumsy description of these exceedingly vague characters: Ben Whishaw narrates the proceedings. Christian Bale portrays Dylan in his public life. Heath Ledger as a post music career actor living in Hollywood. Cate Blanchett during his famous 1965 tour of Britain. Marcus Carl Franklin as a nine year old, African-American hobo embodying the spirit of Woody Guthrie. And Richard Gere as an ambiguous Billy the Kid outlaw death figure of the west. The movie is interesting as a curio, and will probably be more to your liking the more you know about the legendary folk singer (I don't know too much). I'm not sure if any of the performances come off exceedingly well (even Blanchett's hailed one) or if the film gets any closer to the enigmatic songwriter's core. Also, Haynes is a competent filmmaker, but he uses this film as an opportunity to delve into show-offy gimmicks, and nods to Fellini, Godard, Hal Ashby, and others begin to grow wearisome.

Monday, May 20, 2013

No Country for Old Men

The other night I watched Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg, a classic film that held a place in my my mind as a powerful, all-encompassing statement on Nazi atrocities. Upon revisiting it, while still retaining many dynamic sequences, it seemed to have lost much of its initial effect. I bring this up to make the point of how many great movies actually get better upon subsequent viewings? The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men is one of these films. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel, it tells the story of a drug deal gone bad in a barren Texan wasteland and three men, a brazen working class laborer (Josh Brolin), a weary, aging sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones), and a cold blooded psychopath (Javier Bardem) all in pursuit of a briefcase containing 2 million dollars. Made without a soundtrack, and containing scenes of great tension, harsh violence, dark humor, great acting, and perceptive philosophizing it is an almost impossible to fathom film of great construction that offers more and more with each viewing. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Take This Waltz

After sharing a moment with an alluring man (Luke Kirby) on a plane, a writer (Michelle Williams) is dismayed to find he lives across the street from her and her happily married cookbook writing husband (Seth Rogen), and finds it increasingly difficult to suppress her attraction to him. Take This Waltz is flighty and fanciful nonsense, that is shameful in so many ways, that would make even Diablo Cody nauseous. In the proud new tradition of feminist movies, here were see women on the toilet, women wetting themselves, full frontal old lady nudity, fairly graphic sex scenes, and male characters who represent nothing more than female fantasies. The movie was made by Sarah Polley, who made a good film before in Away from Her and whose bio-doc Stories We Tell is being received well now, along with Michelle Williams who has been excellent in almost everything I've seen her in makes me wonder what the hell they're doing in this baffling, odious, idiotic movie. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Lost in America

"You couldn't change you're life on $100,000?" So says an employment agent to a middle aged yuppie (Albert Brooks) who has just quit his job, dropped out of life, hit the road in an RV, and lost the entire sum total of his life savings when his wife (Julie Hagerty) compulsively gambles it all away on a quick detour to Vegas. Brooks' Lost in America, which he also cowrote and directed, is an observant and very funny film, containing only the necessary elements (including a very abrupt wrap-up) and featuring many memorable scenes. among them Brooks trying to talk the casino manager into returning his money.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Last Ride

After committing an undisclosed violent crime and being wanted by the police, an ex-con (Hugo Weaving) visits an ex-girlfriend for sex and supplies and embarks with his young son (Tom Russell) on a destinationless trek across the expansive Australian Outback. Glendyn Ivin's Last Ride features an excellent, unaffected performance from Weaving and nice work from newcomer Russell, in addition to gorgeous photography which provides a contrast to its bleak story. Unfortunately the character's behavior and their ultimate choices are awfully difficult to believe.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home

Born into poverty in Oklahoma, where things would turn even more dire in the latter years of the Dust Bowl, and named after the President, Woody Guthrie would go on to become an American in the truest sense. By championing the poor and forgotten and writing scores of inimitable ballads, including the iconic anthem "This Land Is Your Land", the often irascible rabble rouse would go on to become one of the country's greatest folk heroes. "Woody Guthrie: Ain't Got No Home" is a fair biography, featuring interviews from friends, family, contemporaries, and musicians he inspired. However it is made in such a lurid way, similar to that of an A&E biography, that is frankly not up to the standards of the other entries in the American Masters series.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Civil War

"The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places. From Valverde, New Mexico and Tullahaoma, Tennessee to St. Albans, Vermont and Fernandina on the Florida coast. More than three million Americans fought in it and over 600,000 men, two percent of the population, died in it." So begins David McCullough's indelible narration of The Civil War, Ken Burns' consummate and most famous documentary, which he claimed took longer to write, compile, and assemble than his actual subject itself took to fight. The nine part, nearly twelve hour long miniseries is the most complete example of his incredibly influential body of work as it combines a wealth of archival footage told in Burns' signature style, beautiful writing, the inimitable McCullough narration, and a stock of expert contribution (including the show stealing Shelby Foote), all of which detail what now seems a harrowing, unimaginable conflict.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I ♥ Huckabees

An overly thoughtful environmentalist (Jason Schwartzman) seeks the services of an Existential Dectective Agency and its top private investigators/couple (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) to delve deeply into the mysteries of his own life. Teaming up with an enviro-conscious firefighter (Mark Wahlberg), he embarks on a dubious professional relationship with a sleek business rival (Jude Law), who is married to a picture perfect model (Naomi Watts) who also begins to reexamine her own life. David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees is a jumbled mess that seeks to both capitalize on the success of Three Kings and replicate the madcap zaniness of Flirting with Disaster, with the only problem being the lack of anything resembling a cohesive script or inspired idea in the first place. A sparse saving grace is Wahlberg who is amusing in a self-deprecating role.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Love Liza

Relapsing into despair after finding the suicide note of his recently deceased wife, a young man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes to huffing gas fumes, and then to a radio controlled airplane hobby in order to console his consuming grief (I think that's all the plot description I can bear to muster). "Love Liza" is an incredibly bad and misguided film, featuring a putrid performance from Hoffman, which consists of a lot of yelling and blubbering, all from a poorly conceived screenplay written by his brother Gordy and directed guilelessly by Todd Louiso. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Love in the Afternoon

After eavesdropping on a conversation between her private eye father (Maurice Chevalier) and a client, who threatens the life of a notorious Lothario (Gary Cooper) who has seduced his wife, a young Parisian woman (Audrey Hepburn) rushes over to the charming American's hotel, and soon falls under the elder man's spell, much to the consternation of her father. Love in the Afternoon is a charming film with several inspired sequences and yet another reminder of what a fine auteur Billy Wilder was, working from a script written with regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Hepburn and Cooper are magnetic in their roles, overcoming their considerable age gap and occasional lulls. I also didn't care much for the schmaltzy, soft-served ending.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

While an anticipated film adaptation of a classic American novel is being released this week to generally unfavorable reviews, I decided to check out this version of another often filmed, beloved work. This early, 1939 filmization of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a bastardized, Cliffs Notes rendition of Mark Twain's classic that omits much, and gets very little right, including entirely missing the spirit of the story. Mickey Rooney, who would seem ideal for the role, comes across as stilted, but does receive good support of Rex Ingram as Jim and William Frawley and Walter Connolly who are amusing as the Duke and the Dauphin.

Friday, May 10, 2013


After his personally designed Velcro suit proves disastrous at an international show and making him the laughing stock of the fashion world, a flamboyant Austrian reporter journeys to America to seek his fame and fortune, no matter how debased his methods may be. Following the great success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen drew on another Ali G persona in this shameless, often disarming mockumentary which in its greatest parts is funnier than its predecessor, but much too often sinks to nasty, contemptible lows.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Iron Man 3

After being sucked through a wormhole, destroying the Tesseract, and saving the world from Loki and his alien minions, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), now suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder, distracts himself with the latest robotic advancements while annoying his girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). When a jilted scientist (Guy Pearce) teams up with Stark's brilliant ex-girlfriend and botanist (Rebecca Hall) working in unison with a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), Stark is faced with a band of fire breathing regenerative foes and the almost certain destruction of everyone he knows and cares about. With Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black taking over the reigns from Jon Favreau, Iron Man 3 is a step in the right direction, both from the last Iron Man movie (which I was way too generous towards) and the mindless relentlessness of The Avengers. Although the plot is muddled and the film is longish, it features some spectacularly staged action sequences and a dialed down performance from Downey Jr. The movie also benefits from the strength of its cast including veterans Paltrow and Don Cheadle and newcomers Pearce and Hall, although it's sad to report that Kingsley is somewhat of a letdown.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sergeant York

A rowdy backwoods yokel (Gary Cooper), notorious for his raucous ways, sees a vision from God, vows a life of pacifism, and seeks to fulfill his dream of marrying a radiant local (Joan Leslie) and farming a small plot of land in Daniel Boone country, Tennessee. Then World War I arrives and after failed attempts to challenge his draft status as a a conscientious objector and subsequent mockery from his fellow servicemen, he goes on to become one of the most decorated soldiers in American history. Howard Hawks' Sergeant York is an awfully sluggish and corny (although the second half is a marked improvement),  purportedly undoctored biopic which earned an Oscar for Cooper and his aww shucks hillbilly approach. My biggest problem with the film is evident in the contradiction of York's historic siege when the great, gentle pacifist, with big, glazed over eyes, seems to be taking great delight ("just like turkeys") in picking off vulnerable enemy combatants. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


An art auction employee (James McAvoy), heavily indebted to a gangster (Vincent Cassel) and familiar with the intricate workings of his firms security protocol, stages a robbery of an invaluable Goya painting, crosses his creditor but, thanks to a blow to the head, can't remember where he hid the original. After a few torture sessions fail to ignite his memory, they enlist the help of a gorgeous and ethically unscrupulous hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to help determine the painting's location. Danny Boyle's Trance, which reteams him with John Hodge, the penner of some of his early career success (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) is murky, overplotted, and hyperstylized, and even though its conclusion isn't half as exciting as its set-up, it can't be said that the film is boring. I enjoyed Dawson's work, even though her relationships with her costars are dubious at best, and McAvoy and Cassel deliver surprisingly tame, uninspiring performances.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Strangers on a Train

A tennis player (Farley Granger) trapped in a loveless marriage meets a sociopath (Robert Walker) with mommie issues and a domineering father on a locomotive. When the latter suggests they perform each other's murder ("criss cross"), the tennis pro brushes it off as humorous conjecture and doesn't realize what kind of jackpot he's in until he finds his estranged wife strangled to death. "Strangers on a Train" is a taut and brilliant adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel, whose screenplay was penned by Raymond Chandler and an uncredited Ben Hecht among others, which draws tension from seemingly routine situations (a tennis match or a carousel for example) and features a wickedly funny performance from Walker.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dial M for Murder

A retired British tennis player (Ray Milland) learns that his gorgeous, wealthy wife (Grace Kelly) is having an affair with an American writer (Robert Cummings) and concocts a perfectly realized blackmail scheme involving a seedy, old college chum (Anthony Dawson) to see her murdered; one that must be rethought after the first plan goes awry. Based on a stage play by Frederick Knott, who also did his own adaptation, Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" is sharp and  funny, but longish at times and rehashes its plot more times than it needs to.  Ray Milland is excellent as the shrewd old Brit, Kelly is radiant as ever, and John Williams has a memorable bit as an absentminded inspector assigned to investigate the case. I had the occasion to see the film in 3D (which I didn't know until that time that it was filmed in that medium) and although it has to be one of the last movies you would think would call for it, Hitch handles it with flare, using it mainly for staging instead of hurling projectiles at the audience like many modern movies.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Raid: Redemption

A police unit makes an ill-prepared raid on a crime lord operating out of the top floor of a decrepit apartment building inhabited by an assemblage of gangsters, pushers, pimps, and murderers. When their cover is blown, and the unit becomes sitting ducks for the well-guarded crime lord, it becomes a fight or flight mission for one rookie cop, who has a special incentive for completing his mission. The Raid: Redemption is a relentlessly violent, occasionally well choreographed, but ultimately wearisome film that doesn't even bother with plot or set-up, and should have great appeal for the attention span lacking video gamers.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Snowtown Murders

In rural Australia, a magnetic man enters the lives of a drug addled woman and her three misguided sons when he is hired to intimidate a predatory ex-boyfriend and soon takes his place in the broken home. It soon becomes apparent to the middle son that his new father figure to torturing and eradicating some of the neighborhood's undesirables and quickly becomes pawn in his heinous undertakings and what would come to be known as the country's most notorious serial killer. Featuring a terrifying performance from Daniel Henshall, "The Snowtown Murders" looks its grisly subject directly in the eye and becomes an almost unbearable, unforgettable viewing experience. In a culture where serial killing has become high art or entertainment in disingenuous programs like "Dexter" and the like, "Snowtown" depicts it authentically in all its horror.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Based on the nonfiction book by Peter Bergen, "Manhunt" tells the story of the search for Osama bin Laden from the perspective of CIA intelligence agents and field operatives, which began some ten years before the 9/11 attacks when he turned his attentions from the Russian to American forces. Despite threats, attacks around the world (including the World Trade Center Bombings in 1993), and the insistence of dogged analysts, bin Laden went largely ignored until that fateful day in 2001 when his search became a new kind of jigsaw puzzle. "Manhunt" is a gripping film, which contains a little more theory and job description than actual history of events than as I would have preferred, but is still nonetheless a compelling testimony by the men and women on the front lines of the tenuous war on terror. It features excellent, sometimes shocking footage (including a 1997 remote interview between Bergen and bin Laden) and succeeds in explaining what made the investigation so long and dense, and rewarding at its conclusion.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Jesse James

Simple, humble Missouri country boy Jesse James (Tyrone Power) and his volatile brother Frank (Henry Fonda) are stirred to a life of crime after their poor mother (Jane Darwell) is murdered by railroad agents. After taking a wife (Nancy Kelly), Jesse's Robin Hood like actions quickly elevate him to near mythic status before being shot dead by a member of his own crew (John Carradine). Henry King's "Jesse James" is an entertaining retelling of the outlaw's life story which probably bears little to no resemblance of the real thing. Power lacks bite in the lead role and seems to be there solely for his looks, but Fonda is (unsurprisingly) astounding as his brother (he would reprise the role a year later in "The Return of Frank James"). I thought the film somewhat fizzled towards the end, but an daring, exquisitely filmed early train raid sequence also makes this well worth watching.