Wednesday, July 31, 2013

House of Usher

A city gentleman (Mark Damon) travels to the country home of his betrothed (Myrna Fahey) and encounters her ghoulish, suspicious, and standoffish older brother (Vincent Price) who denies him visitation due to her sickly heath and a family penchant towards madness. House of Usher was the first of Roger Corman's heralded Edgar Allan Poe films of the early 1960s (it's the second I've seen after The Pit and the Pendulum, also excellent) and was written by the great, recently deceased sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, creator of so many great TV episodes and films, who here does a fine job in generally capturing Poe's short story in a succinct movie. House of Usher features great lighting, photography, an extraordinary climax and of course an expectedly great performance from Vincent Price.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Gatekeepers

Since the Six-Day War in 1967 and the occupation of Palestine the Shin Bet, Israel's secret service, has been the only group present for each of the country's crucial policy making decisions. The Gatekeepers presents six former heads of the intelligence agency, who through candid interviews detailing specifics of their actions and voicing their few triumphs and several regrets, takes us through several phases in the interminable Israeli/Palestinian conflict including the Bus 300 affair, the Oslo peace accords, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. I read that filmmaker Dror Moreh was inspired to make this documentary after viewing Errol Morris' extraordinary The Fog of War which interviews former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara where he expresses lamentations over some of the U.S.'s Vietnam War strategies. Through similar frankness and starkness of the footage, this film also carries the same haunting and enthralling capacities.  I did, however, feel that Moreh nudged too hard in some of the interviews, which also tend to grow redundant especially when the subjects begin to speak on the future of their country's policies.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

A homemaker's abusive husband dies suddenly in a car crash, hurling her and her only son out on to the open road where she seeks to reclaim a childhood dream of becoming a singer and encounters a wide array of people and difficulties along the way. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is an atypical early film from Martin Scorsese, an imperfect semi-episodic female centered road movie featuring many excellent scenes and several that don't work or lack credibility. Ellen Burstyn is outstanding in her Academy Award winning performance and Alfred Lutter III turns in good work as her flippant son. The film is also a treat for the fine supporting work by talents including Diane Ladd, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster, and Kris Kristofferson.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Goodbye Girl

A dancer (Marsha Mason) living with her precocious daughter (Quinn Cummings) finds her latest boyfriend flying the coop and subletting their apartment to an obnoxious, ego inflated actor (Richard Dreyfuss) who has just scored the lead in a bizarre, homosexual rendition of Richard III in an "off-off-off" Broadway production. The Goodbye Girl was extremely successful in its day, but is a typically schmaltzy Neil Simon work, replete with constant one-liners hitting their mark approximately less than 10% of the time. Dreyfuss, who surprisingly won the Oscar for his performance, is awfully irritating (though his theater scenes are a hoot) as are Mason and Cummings, who also bafflingly garnered much praise for their work.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Paperboy

A reporter (Matthew McConaughey), his kid brother (Zac Efron), a British activist (David Oyelowo), and a death row groupie (Nicole Kidman) fight to exonerate a white trasher (John Cusack) convicted of the murder of a reprobate sheriff in 1960s Florida and get entangled in the grisly case, more so than they initially dared. Coming off the success of Precious, director Lee Daniels follows up with this raunchy crime drama with an overblown performance from Kidman, a severely miscast Cusack, and pretty good turns from McConaughey and Efron. The film is relentlessly unpleasant, but the problem isn't just that this is lurid trash, it's tedious lurid trash.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Boxcar Bertha

A woman of the railcars (Barbara Hershey) and her labor organizing lover (David Carradine) dodge anti-Union forces in the Depression-era South and resort to armed robbery. Boxcar Bertha was a  Bonnie and Clyde knockoff produced by Roger Corman which also marked the sophomore outing for Martin Scorsese as a director. The production is important because it taught the great director economy and fundamentals about moviemaking, and the film itself is a modest B-picture, with an enjoyable, folksy first half giving way to an exploitative, violent, over the top finale. Hershey and Carradine prove very fine in their roles.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Only God Forgives

The brother (Tom Burke) of a mentally disturbed Bangkok drug lord (Ryan Gosling) is brutally murdered in retaliation for the rape and murder of a 16-year old girl. In flies their malignant, icy mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to collect her son's body and exact revenge on the warrior-like police captain (Vithaya Pansringarm) who approved the murder. Is there a worse kind of movie than a plotless, humorless slog with haughty intentions and a complete self-seriousness, and furthermore one that exists only for the purpose of its scenes of extreme punctuating violence? Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to Drive, which reteams him with an ever glaring Gosling (this time to the point of ludicrousness), feels like it was made by a third grader on steroids with art school aspirations and with a glacial pace that, although the move is only 90 minutes long, would make Berlin Alexanderplatz glide by with the alacrity of a Little Rascals short. Only God Forgives is an ugly, vile mess that shows both how quickly a positive collaboration can turn sour and how two talents can wind up with their heads up their asses without even knowing so.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pacific Rim

So I walked into Pacific Rim during the previews, amid the next big budget debacles that Hollywood was promoting. Then one ran for this flashy, sophomoric, and ludicrously overblown blockbuster involving soldiers inhabiting gargantuan robot suits and fighting off Godzilla like invaders, the kind of film that I would have sopped up as a twelve year old and avoid like the plague now. After nearly five minutes went by, I realized it wasn't a trailer but the feature itself, with over two hours yet to come of that infernal inanity. Pacific Rim is an almost complete abomination, especially coming from someone held in such high regard as Guillermo del Toro, who shows no visual flair and presents a repugnant digitized film from a screenplay that seems like it was written by James Cameron's half-witted younger brother. The acting is atrocious (Sons of Anarchy costars Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman are the biggest culprits) and talented performers like Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi can do nothing to right this mess. Between the inept action sequences, artless set design, putrid dialogue, and abysmal acting,  I couldn't tell if this movie was to be taken seriously or if this was all one big 190 million dollar joke. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Who's That Knocking at My Door

A young man (Harvey Keitel) wanders aimlessly with his buddies through the streets of New York. His thoughtfulness and intelligence are revealed however during a trip to the country and when he meets a nice young girl (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island Ferry, dishing to her on John Ford's The Searchers and his other favorite films. The two begin a courtship which is forever adulterated when she reveals to him that she had once been raped, a fact he cannot come to terms with. Who's That Knocking at My Door was the autobiographical directorial debut of Martin Scorsese and a drum roll to Mean Streets, its pseudo sequel that announced the whirlwind director to the world. Shot on a shoestring and beleaguered by distribution problems, WTKAMD nonetheless contains Scorsese's trademark themes, techniques, and naturalistic film aptitudes that capture an engrossing, extremely personal story. Keitel, who was also making his film debut, delivers a sublimely emotive lead performance.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Imposter

In 1997, a Texas family received word that their son, who they reported missing four years earlier at the age of thirteen, had been found alive in Spain. Overjoyed by his return, the family glossed over such trivial aberrations such as the boy's changed facial features or his development of a French accent. After heads begin to turn following several television appearances, a local private investigator gets involved in the case and even more sinister implications begin to be drawn. The Imposter is nothing more than an extended episode of unsolved mysteries, laying on its intriguing story extra thick, and ultimately gearing you up for nothing.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mad Love

A deranged surgeon (Peter Lorre) has an unhealthy obsession with a stage actress (Frances Drake), attending every one of her performances and procuring a life-sized wax statue of her figure. When her pianist husband (Colin Clive) loses his hands in a train accident, the doctor replaces them with those of an infamous, recently executed knife-throwing serial murderer and begins to pursue his beloved. From Marice Renard's short story The Hands of OrlacMad Love is an eerie and effective horror film with a silly premise, and an even more preposterous ending. It contains a creepy lead performance by Lorre in his first American film and fine direction by Karl Freund and exquisite cinematography by Gregg Toland. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Abolitionists

Whether it was a newspaperman who saw his life's work in abolition, a traveller through the South stunned by the brutalities of the institution, a daughter of slaveholders recognizing the evil and going against the grain to fight it, a farmer whose devilish ire was stoked by its wickedness, and a self-taught African-American who bore its evils firsthand, The Abolitionists focuses on five leaders of the movement who were instrumental in bringing about slavery's end. William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Angelina Grimke, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass went to their excruciating limits to bring the onset of seismic change in the years leading up to the Civil War. This three-part installment in the American Experience is a well-told yet mostly familiar history containing surprisingly good recreations and is severely tarnished by editorializing experts offering obvious commentary and arrives at unsatisfactory conclusions such as the notion that the original sin of slavery was erased by the signing of the 13th amendment.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Way, Way Back

A lonely teenager (Liam Jones), so introverted he can barely get out two words at once, vacations with his soft-spined mother (Toni Collette) and her callous new boyfriend (Steve Carell) at his summer home. There he falls in with the shiftless manager of the local water park (Sam Rockwell) who gives him a job and takes him under his wing. Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who both recently took home Oscars for co-writing The Descendants with Alexander Payne (and whom both have moderately amusing supporting roles here),  The Way, Way Back feels like 1,000 movies before it, so much so that with each principal character's introduction, you can immediately and correctly guess their fates. What is interesting, as with most of his work, is Rockwell who continues to cement himself as one of the finest actors of his generation, here doing what he can with a tepid comic script and leaving an indelible mark in his final scene.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Side by Side

Side by Side is a documentary directed by Christopher Kenneally, hosted by Keanu Reeves (who come off as engaging and knowledgeable), and featuring interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan and many others, that explores the history of film construction with a focus on the digital revolution of the last two decades that has overtaken the industry. I found the film worthwhile for how in-depth its technical knowledge was (learning the inner aspects of both kinds of cameras was fascinating) but it does grow redundant and it's a little disheartening to hear so many of these filmmaking masters sing the praises of digital while mourning, and in several instances panning the use of celluloid.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Jackie Brown

An aging flight attendant (Pam Grier) working for a low rent airline and running money for a lethal arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) is arrested by two ATF agents (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen) for carrying a large sum of money and a small amount of cocaine. Thus commences a complicated and deadly game of double and triple crosses also involving a bail bondsman (Robert Forster), a beach bunny (Bridget Fonda), and a lackadaisical layabout ex-con (Robert De Niro). Working from Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, Quentin Tarantino's follow-up to Pulp Fiction is done just about as good as you can do a small crime film. It features the expected violence and heightened dialogue on top of a complex plot structure and features dynamic performances from Grier and Forster, and a menacing one from Jackson. Of all his films, Jackie Brown is the only one that Tarantino developed from a book and I wonder if this isn't a preferable method. Working from someone else's story provides a welcomed restraint that still allows him to incorporate his own flourishes without resorting to out of hand, kill everything that moves culminations that have tarnished his recent films. Jackie Brown proves that going out on a whimper can be just as effective, if not more so.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Thin Blue Line

In November 1976, itinerant Randall Adams was passing through the Dallas area seeking out employment when he came in contact with a 16-year old delinquent named David Ray Harris. Soon, he found himself accused, interrogated, tried, convicted, and sitting on death row for the murder of a Dallas police officer. Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line is an in-depth investigatory documentary made with Adams and Harris' behind bars participation (Harris was locked up for another crime) and which ultimately earned an appeals case that exonerated the former and conferred the death charge upon the latter. Morris' film, whose frightening implications are made all the more eerie through Philip Glass' ominous score, uses one case to explore the cracks in our legal system and how reasonable doubt can become distorted, and also demonstrates the importance of art as an impetus of change.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, July 15, 2013

Autumn Sonata

A celebrated concert pianist (Ingrid Bergman) who has long neglected her family returns to the home of her daughter (Liv Ullman) and, to her surprise and shock, finds her other mentally challenged daughter (Lena Nyman) whom she had long ago institutionalized. An awkward reacquaintance and dinner is followed by a late-night conversation between mother and daughter where years of unspoken hatreds and regrets come bubbling to the surface. Autumn Sonata joined two of Sweden's most celebrated international talents Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman, in what would be a late career triumph for both of them. Ingrid, who is cold and tremendous in her role, would earn an Academy Award nomination and not make another feature film, and Ingmar, whose film is as dark and challenging as any of the many great works he crafted, would receive further critical accolades and also an Oscar nod for screenwriting. The cinematography by his longtime collaborator Sven Nykvist is sumptuous and Liv Ullman is match for Ms. Bergman in a heartbreaking performance.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Day After

As tensions escalate during a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, we are shown the tribulations of several variant Kansas residents as the respond the impending nuclear destruction. The Day After is a television movie that starts off well enough, introducing its likable characters and building suspense,  but quickly sheds its dramatic ambitions and reveals itself solely as infotainment. I remembered watching this as a kid, decided to seek it out again and first arrived at Testament, mistaking the two films due to their similar themes and having both been released in the same year. I found both films to be equally wretched, again with shock value for the sake of informing taking precedence over drama. For something that achieves that effect, I would recommend the Peter Watkins' devastating pseudo-documentary The War Game over either of these so-called "nuclear war dramas."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Wild Bunch

At the tail end of a nearly faded West, Pike and the few remaining members of his band of outlaws (William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and Jaime Sanchez) head south to Mexican territory following a botched robbery and being pursued by a posse led by an ex-gang member (Robert Ryan). There they become entangled with a powerful general and a railroad magnate, are forced to confront their values, and continue on to their impending, bloody destiny. Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch created a whirlwind of controversy when it was released in 1969. Viewing it today, although the violence now seems commonplace, it still creates a shock, both because of how well it is handled through quick cutting and slow motion techniques and from the actual message behind it. It features an excellent veteran cast of distinct, worn faces with Ryan standing out with an excellent performance.

Friday, July 12, 2013

In Cold Blood

On a cold November morning in 1959, an upstanding farmer, his wife, and two teen-aged children were found brutally murdered in their homes, the results of a botched home invasion, sending fear through the hearts of their small Kansas town and shock waves across the nation. Based on Truman Capote's real-life crime novel, In Cold Blood follows the manhunt, apprehension, trial, conviction, and execution of the two ex-cons responsible for the crimes, interspersed with flashbacks of their backgrounds and scenes from their brief getaway. Like Capote's novel, director Richard Brooks' adaptation builds his work on detailed realism, filming on many of the actual locations, presenting his film as a docudrama. It is starkly shot in black and white, incredibly edited, features an excellent performance from Robert Blake, and is only slightly diminished by the weighty narration of the Capote fill-in.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Your Sister's Sister

A young woman (Emily Blunt) offers her close friend (Mark Duplass) the keys to their rustic family home after seeing he is still in pain a year following the death of his brother. Upon his arrival he unexpectedly finds her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) on the premises and sleeps with her before another unexpected arrival of his best friend the next morning. Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister is a scant and silly comedic exercise which is given much weight by its three engaging stars and further embedded by the gorgeous location photography.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

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 witnessing a moving speech on illiteracy at a New York public library, he believes the guy just may be the real deal. Soon he is signed on as campaign manager and finds himself covering up his bosses sexual escapades. When a newcomer (Larry Hagman) unexpectedly enters in the race, he goes on a fact finding mission with a former staff member (Kathy Bates) which will take him to dark, compromising places he never expected to be. Based on a novel by Joe Klein (originally published under Anonymous) detailing Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential 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 cypher, and Bates and Hagman both deliver heartrending performances.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Celeste and Jesse Forever

High school sweethearts (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg), now married and in their 30s, decide to separate and see other people, while still attempting to stay close and live together. Celeste and Jesse Forever is another obnoxious and vacuous romantic comedy from a few of the young actors who continue to pollute the genre with a style of comedy that has been stale for years with the worst part about it being that they think they are creating great art. By the time the movie arrived at its emotional climax, I wasn't even aware a story was being told at which point I turned on the reverse counter display of my DVD because counting down the remaining seconds was infinitely more interesting than anything going on onscreen.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

As the war in Vietnam continued with no discernible end in sight, John Lennon, residing in the States at the time, became the poster child of the anti-war movement and a proverbial thorn in the side of the Nixon Administration who sought to take legal action to deport the peace loving icon. The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a muddled documentary that rehashes well known historical points with uninteresting less known ones, concludes with harebrained conspiracy theories, and features an insufferable Yoko Ono commenting throughout.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Diner

In 1959, a group of college aged friends (Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser) return home to Baltimore for a wedding and engage in a series of last ditch antics to stave off their already onset foray into adulthood. Barry Levinson's autobiographical Diner is an unworthy American Graffiti knockoff. It features contrived situations and irritating dialogue, and I'd be interested to hear of a film with a more smarmy, less likable cast.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Believer

A brilliant skinhead (Ryan Gosling) joins an underground anti-semitic sect, leading the debate on group policy, while personally targeting Jews with his own degenerate gang. Through flashbacks, it is soon revealed that he himself is Jewish and was once a gifted and discerning student at Hebrew school. When a New York Times reporter catches wind of his story, he finds his credibility threatened, and his belief system shaken once again. Based on a true story, The Believer takes the same approach as American History X by deconstructing racism through the presentation of a rabid, intellectual bigot. Like that film, it also features a strong central performance, here by Ryan Gosling, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that he was twenty years old when he filmed it. Also similar to the earlier movie, The Believer is inclined towards pretensions and moralizing which strains what is occasionally a very powerful statement.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mean Streets

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a guilt ridden youth poised to inherit a restaurant from his uncle's protection racket and shamed by his family for his involvement with an epileptic girl he is in love with. He carouses Little Italy with his friends, other low-rent, bottom level gangsters, and fights for the life of Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), his out of control boyhood pal whose dangerous antics place him more and more beyond redemption. Mean Streets was Martin Scorsese's breakthrough film, a semi-autobiographical sequel of sorts to his debut Who's That Knocking at My Door, and it is every bit as worthy as any of his subsequent masterpieces. Filmed in a world he is intimately familiar with, the film has an independent, impromptu feel although it is clearly the result of careful preparation (watch the extraordinary barroom brawl sequence for a prime example from this). The film, with the simultaneous release of Bang the Drum Slowly also marked the introduction of De Niro, who is memorably volatile here, but the film also features a remarkable lead performance from Keitel, which seems to get surprisingly overlooked during discussions of the movie.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

42

42 tells the story of St. Jack Robinson, a Negro Leagues star and former UCLA standout athlete who, through his infallibility and perfect judgement on and off the field broke baseball's color barrier and joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus softening the hearts of white men the world over before becoming the greatest ballplayer of all time. I hope those reading will recognize that my cynicism here is directed at the film and not at the achievements of Jackie Robinson, which were considerable and far reaching. However, Brian Helgeland's film is a fawning and sanitized portrait, concocted for general audiences (excepting a memorable scene featuring Alan Tudyk, which seems to belong to a different movie), and features a lead character who can do no wrong, thus generating virtually no interest. Newcomer Chadwick Boseman does what he can in the role and put at a further disadvantage by a screen gnashing Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey, the National League President and brainchild behind the Robinson experiment.  Because baseball is such an American institution, I think there is a tendency for filmmakers to create hackneyed movies about the sport. 42 falls into this trap and its cloying sincerity and secular idolatry makes The Pride of the Yankees look like a no-holds-barred shocking exposé.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Spider

After spending time in a mental institution, a severely disturbed man (Ralph Fiennes) enters an austere halfway house under the care of a dour proprietor (Lynn Redgrave). There he remembers a horrendous incident of his youth involving involving his mother (Miranda Richardson), father (Gabriel Byrne), and his father's mistress (Richardson again). David Cronenberg's Spider, like most of his pictures, is cold, morbid, and relentlessly bleak, while also being impeccably directed and picturesquely framed. Fiennes' work is strong as usual and Richardson delivers not one but two standout performances. Cronenberg is a master filmmaker, even if his icy films occasionally keep you at arm's length. Here, I began to appreciate his frugality as a director, how he never presents more than is needed and how his films always feel exactly the right length.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Before Midnight

It's been eighteen years since Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) got off a train and spent a romantic night in Vienna together, and nine years since they reconnected in Paris. Now after dropping his son from a first marriage off at the airport, the couple, now raising twin girls, spends the final evening of their summer vacation on a Greek isle reflecting on their lives, careers, being middle aged, and the impending issues that threaten their relationship. Before Midnight is the third film in the series that began with Before Sunrise and was continued with Before Sunset, and again features a charming, intelligent film written by Richard Linklater and his two stars. I appreciated how the romanticized whimsy of the earlier films somewhat tempered here and I thought Hawke was very strong with the best scenes being when him and Delpy alone share the screen, even though she does come off as something of an exceptional pig. I think it's probably relative to say I had another bad theater experience with this movie as some old biddies sitting nearby me thought their conversation was more important than the one going on onscreen. As much as I hate to say it, I probably would have had a more meaningful experience watching this alone in the comfort of my own home.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Thief

A master safecracker (James Caan), yearning for a family life and one step removed from legitimization, agrees to one last mob-backed score, and finds himself unable to extricate himself from his new partnership. Michael Mann's feature film debut is pretty standard stuff in terms of plotting but is given great weight by both his distinct, sleek, high octane style which is evident from the get-go and a career performance from Caan. Robert Prosky makes an absolutely ruthless villain and the film contains a violent, memorable finale.