Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dawn of the Dead

After clearing out an abandoned apartment building filled with survivors of a zombie apocalypse resisting martial law, two SWAT team members join up with a Philadelphia news crew as they evacuate their station by helicopter. They take refuge in a shopping mall in Western Pennsylvania which serves their basic needs but also presents threats not only in terms of hordes of undead walkers but also in a renegade gang that has also invaded the shopping center. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, more of a followup or a retread than a sequel to his  Night of the Living Dead, is less cerebral, and more akin to the graphic zombie movies that have inundated multiplexes since. It is, however, crafted just as masterfully with Romero making the most out of his locations, gruesome special effects, and an engaging, unknown cast. It is a little on the long side and hurt somewhat by its comedic sidebars, but with the number of lifeless and uninspired zombie shlock possessing our television and movie screens, Dawn of the Dead is a welcomed and frightful retreat.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Videodrome

The producer of a third rate Toronto television station (James Woods) meets with his video pirate who has just intercepted a top secret wave out of Pittsburgh containing compulsively watchable snuff material he plans to air on his late night broadcasts. Soon, he realizes these are much more than cathode rays and finds his body undergoing a metamorphosis and himself a sleeper agent in a right wing conspiracy. Videodrome is an intelligent, creepy, and outlandish picture that succeeds, despite its silly premise, thanks to an excellent lead performance from Woods, state of the art, repellent Rick Baker special effects, and the commanding direction and storytelling abilities of David Cronenberg, who is at the top of his game in this relatively early career outing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and 1978)

Ken McCarthy, star of the original film, cameoing here in the remake
Foreign invaders manifested in plant form begin to duplicate the human body as soon as the host enters a sleep state, eradicating the original frame and forming a race of emotionless drones. In Don Siegel's original 1956 version, which was concocted as an allegory in response to anti-communist fervor, Kevin McCarthy stars as a small town physician who begins to piece together these mysterious ongoings. When the film was remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978, Donald Sutherland took over the lead playing a San Francisco health inspector in a similar predicament. Both films are intense and wonderfully executed and also function well on their own terms. Siegel's original is a silly, sci-fi 50s B movie played straight and containing great photography, some genuine scares, and a memorable final scene. Kaufman's is a skillful update benefitting from his filmmaking acumen, some new twists on the material  and an outstanding performance from Sutherland.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Altered States

A brilliant Harvard psychology professor (William Hurt), becoming increasingly bored with his work researching schizoid disorders, begins experimenting with mind altering drugs and sensory deprivation equipment leading to genetic retrogradation. Watching a film based on a Paddy Chayefsky novel (the screenplay which he also wrote and purportedly disowned), I think I was expecting something more cerebral, angry and satirical and less horror oriented but was pleased nonetheless with Ken Russell's wild, and alternately horrifying and exciting treatment of the material. The editing is excellent, the fantasy sequences are exceedingly well done, and Hurt demonstrates what a commanding actor he is in what was his first screen outing.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Innocents

A governess (Deborah Kerr) arrives at a countryside manor to take charge of two young children under strict instructions from their uncaring guardian uncle (Michael Redgrave) never to contact him, no matter how dire the circumstances become. Quickly she becomes convinced that her wards have been corrupted by two recently deceased overseers, and are now possessed by their spirits. From the classic novella The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton's The Innocents is the definitive and a relatively simple haunted house movie, a genre that has been fumbled by filmmakers so often over the years. Screenwriters Truman Capote and William Archibald fill in the blanks of Henry James' story to great effect and superb black and white photography and a few camera tricks lend to some genuinely spooky moments. Kerr and Megs Jenkins, playing a long term maid, both turn in terrific performances.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

28 Days Later...

A radical environmental sect releases a group of test monkeys from a top secret lab, inadvertently unleashing a flesh eating virus and decimating the British population. Left standing are a small band of uninfected survivors who have the almost impossible task of evacuating the Isle. Danny Boyle, a director whose style over substance approach to moviemaking has resulted in some riveting films, falls completely flat here with this undead outing. Shot largely in digital, one of the first films to do so with the now widely used format, 28 Days Later... has a dismal, murky quality which isn't aided by its complete lack of narrative thrust and usually competent actors such as Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Brendan Gleeson who flounder in Alex Garland's lackluster, inert screenplay.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Silence of the Lambs


An FBI trainee (Jodie Foster) is sent by the head of the profiling division (Scott Glenn) to interview the incarcerated, diabolical, extremely intelligent sociopath Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) as a last ditch effort to catch a fellow serial killer (Ted Levine), the stakes soon being upped when a Senator's daughter is abducted. I recently revisited the dark, brooding chambers of Jonathan Demme's masterful Silence of the Lambs after reading Thomas Harris' novel (also spellbinding) which had the uncanny effect of only enhancing an already consummate film, by giving me a head start on the names and plotting which allowed for greater focus on the craft and acting. Hopkins gives an iconic, unforgettable performance, one which he has not been able to live up to since, and one which dominates the whole movie even though he is only on screen for a relatively short while compared to Foster who has the tougher, less flashy acting task and delivers marvelously nonetheless. Levine also gives a creepy and odious villainous performance. Demme's film is first rate from top to bottom, with a crackerjack screenplay from Ted Tally, amazing cinematography from Tak Fujimoto, and scenes of palpable tension in scenarios ranging from psychological to immediate danger.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Lodger

A suspicious young chap checks into a boarding house in the projected murder site of a local serial killer and arouses the fear and anger of the owners when their daughter begins to take a liking to him. The Lodger, a British silent film inspired by the Jack the Ripper killings, was the first Hitchcock movie that The Master himself deemed to be sufficient. It is more of a comedy than a chiller, done in the director's wry style, and has a tendency to drag, but peaks with an absolutely fantastic finale.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Suspiria

A New York ballet student (Jessica Harper) enlists with a renowned German conservatory and before she even steps out of the taxi on its way from the airport, it is clear that something is off about the place.  Dario Argento's film is a highly held horror offering, mainly due to some gruesome bloodletting effects (which are sparse in an otherwise surprisingly tame slasher flick) and impressive camerawork which disguise a barebones, virtually nonexistent plot.  Suspiria proves that all it takes is a little blood and gore and not much else for horror fans, the least discriminating of all moviegoers, to soak it up.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Invisible Man

Drawing the stares and muffled grumblings of the patrons of a country inn, a heavily bandaged scientist (Claude Rains, who remains true to the title, unseen until the very end) arrives to rent a room with several large piece of luggage in tow. Having recently concocted a serum that causes his body matter to turn translucent, he strives to find the antidote before a major side effect, the onset of murderous rage, takes its hold. Adapted from the H.G. Wells' novel, The Invisible Man is an incredibly well done scary movie made at Universal under Carl Laemmle, and crafted by horror movie master James Whale who infuses the picture with the same kind of creative special effects and wry sense of humor which predominate his Frankenstein pictures.

Monday, October 21, 2013

2001: A Space Odyssey

A group of primates happen upon a large, metallic pillar and soon discover the ability to make simple tools and weapons. Fast forward several thousand millennia to the title year where a similar structure has been discovered dispatching messages to Jupiter, where a two man crew and an eerie, self-thinking supercomputer have been sent to investigate. From an Arthur C. Clarke novel, Stanley Kubrick's visionary masterwork can be seen as a challenging piece of science fiction and as a mesmerizing visual wonder. It unfolds at a deliberate pace and features excellent photography and state of the art special effects (which still haven't been equalled) meshed perfectly with classical music. It also contains one of the finest villainous "performances" from the HAL 9000.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rush

Rush tells the story of Formula One drivers James Hunt, a risk taking playboy Brit, and Niki Lauda, a calculated, conservative Austrian, and their heated rivalry which culminated during the racing season of 1976. Following another dubious big budget Dan Brown prequel, an ill-begotten Vince Vaughn/Kevin James comedy outing, and a return to nettlesome narration in the serial format, Ron Howard proves he still has what it takes as a major director in this return to good old-fashioned filmmaking. Working again with writer Peter Morgan, with whom he shared his last great success in Frost/Nixon, Howard tells an exciting story, little known on this side of the pond, that begins as popcorn fun, turns serious, and keeps the audience on the hook the entire way. Chris Hemsworth is commanding as Hunt,  Daniel Bruhl turns in an odd, offbeat and totally winning performace playing Lauda, and the film is interspersed with enthralling racing sequences. It does goes on a tad too long, and a subplot involving Olivia Wilde as Hemsworth's wife is a liability, but following a putrid summer of mega movie clunkers, it was nice to see a movie reliant on its characters and fundamental moviemaking know how.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sid and Nancy

Sid Vicious was the best known rocker of the British Punk scene, but still found himself shooting smack, playing two bit gigs with his Sex Pistols bandmates, and sleeping in alleyways and abandoned buildings. Sid and Nancy tells the story of his turbulent relationship with Nancy Spungen, an American groupie whose murder he would be accused of in the months before his overdose death. Alex Cox's film is a well made descent into the void with an uncanny, indistinguishable performance from Gary Oldman who is matched by Chloe Webb as Spungen. It also contains some remarkable, stylized visual sequences, marked by the concluding one in particular.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Smashed

After a night of partying places her once more in a bizarre and potentially dangerous situation, and also leads to an awkward situation at her job, a kindergarten teacher (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) decides its finally time to get serious about her drinking problem, which has harsh repercussions on her marriage. James Ponsoldt's Smashed has noble intentions of dealing honestly with alcoholism and perhaps even has insight on the disease that affects so many individuals but goes about it completely pathetically, either with inept acting, particularly from Aaron Paul who places the immature, likewise addicted husband, or through lame moments of comic levity which are present to soften the blow from the otherwise weighty material. Winstead, in a performance that earned some good notices when the film was released, struggles with consistency and especially during some of her more challenging sequences.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Donner Party

In 1846, just a few years before the Gold Rush, a group consisting of thirty six men, women, and children seeking a new start in California attempted, against advisement, to cross the Sierra Nevada range and found themselves ensnared in the frigid mountains and ultimately resorting to cannibalism. Ric Burns' treatment of the chilling, mythical tale of Manifest Destiny is hauntingly told and features exquisite photography of the region.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Bling RIng

A group of tabloid crazed, celebrity obsessed upper end high schoolers begin getting thrills by breaking into cars in ritzy Beverly Hills neighborhoods and get the brazen, somewhat inspired idea to research their favorite celebs' travel plans, google their addresses, and waltz right into their homes while they're away. Based on a true crime story that inspired a Vanity Fair article, The Bling Ring is a skillful exercise from Sofia Coppola who again demonstrates her dexterity behind the camera but doesn't feel compelled to go beyond obvious comments of her shallow subjects or offer anything of value more than would a TMZ like program or a grocery aisle rag. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pale Rider

Clint Eastwood stars as a brooding, enigmatic transient (playing against type, right?) who rides into a small town and defends its villagers against an evil mining company. Pale Rider is an overly simple, painfully obvious not to mention boring Western that doesn't hold a candle to any of the great films Eastwood has starred in or directed in the genre. Otherwise, I did enjoy some of the supporting performances, including Michael Moriarty, a young Chris Penn, and Richard 'Jaws' Kiel.

Monday, October 14, 2013

L'eclisse

A woman (Monica Vitti) leaves her older lover (Francisco Rabal) to embark on a meaningless affair with a suave and vapid stockbroker (Alain Delon). L'eclisse completes Michelangelo Antonioni's three part treatise on modern emptiness and despondency and contains much of the turgidity of La Notte, its direct predecessor, but still has much more to work with, mainly with the beautiful Vitti, who returns following L'Avventura, and does such an excellent job emoting those feelings of alienation. Further, like most of Antonioni's films, this one has a superb ending.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Henry Ford

Henry Ford, a poor farm boy from rural Michigan, would open up the world for millions of people with his invention of the Model-T and development of the assembly line, becoming one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of the United States. Behind closed doors, and occasionally in public, he demonstrated an uncompromising, bitter, and even lonely persona, and found often himself embroiled in arguments and controversies, sometimes even within his own behemoth auto company. Henry Ford, an installment in PBS' American Experience series, is a fascinating and ultimately sad portrait of the legendary industrialist, which draws an all-encompassing portrait of Ford's public and private life.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bad Day at Black Rock


Directly following the conclusion of World War II, a dead armed stranger (Spencer Tracy) gets off at Black Rock on the first train to stop there in three years. He is searching for the home of a Japanese farmer but is met with great resistance from the hostile locales who have a terrible secret to hide. Bad Day at Black Rock is a clunky John Sturges Western which has garnered high praise, possibly due to its social message hidden in a plot secret which the film goes to too great of lengths to protect. The most powerful asset of the film are its villains and this one does have three great ones in Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, and an exceptional Robert Ryan.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips

In 2009, Somali pirates hijacked an American cargo ship bound for Kenya in the Gulf of Aden. After Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), along with the rest of his crew, was able to diffuse the immediate situation, he was taken aboard one of the ship's lifeboats and held hostage during a lengthy standoff with the U.S. Navy. With Captain Phillips, director Paul Greengrass takes another major, harrowing recent news story and is able to generate great tension through stark realism as he did to superb effect in United 93.  Hanks has achieved such a level of stardom that now makes it hard for him to disappear into his roles or possibly for an audience to take him seriously (at my showing, there were scenes where crowd members, myself included, laughed at parts that probably weren't intended to be comical), but he nonetheless does an excellent job depicting a career sailor, and particularly shines in the concluding sequences which show his character going into shock. Barkhad Abdi also turns in a fine performance as the affable leader of the Somalis. My one minor gripe (which is very minor considering how well it is shot) is with the length of the lifeboat sequence, which reminded me of the airport scene in Argo where a pivotal climatic scene is being milked for every last ounce of tension despite a widely known outcome.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz catches up with his characters from Happiness, assigns all new performers to take on the roles, and appropriates brand new (and much of the old) anguish and despair with which to struggle and suffer. What could have been an uninspired sequel of sorts or a victim of its stunt casting (not only do different actors take over but the types vary wildly, for example Ciaran Hinds takes over for Dylan Baker, Michael Kenneth Williams replaces Philip Seymour Hoffman, etc.) quickly becomes another piece of inspired storytelling from the master of American middle class misery.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Late Quartet

When the oldest member (Christopher Walken) of a string quartet announces his retirement following a crushing Parkinson's diagnosis, the other members of the group (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir) begin to question their roles as personal resentments rise to the surface. Yaron Zilberman's A Late Quartet is a film that knows and feels comfortable in the world it inhabits, allowing the viewer to always feel they are learning something even during passages where the drama doesn't click or when story elements feel prolonged. It also functions as a fine vehicle for its adept cast.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Chicken with Plums

A violinist (Mathieu Almaric) loses the will to live after his prized instrument breaks and confines himself to his room where he awaits death and has vivid dreams recalling his lost true love. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's Chicken with Plums is made in that dark, heightened, and whimsical style of French humor, not dissimilar to that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen), and is grounded by another fine performance from Almaric.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Royal Affair

A British royal (Alicia Vikander) is forced into a loveless marriage with the sophomoric, mentally imbalanced King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) whose illness provides the opportunity to be puppeteered by a progressive court physician (Mads Mikkelsen) whose Enlightenment inspired philosophies ultimately stir change throughout the whole of Europe and, more immediately and perilously, attract the affections of the King's lady. A Royal Affair is gorgeously filmed and contains three excellent, sympathetic performances which breathe life into this intriguing period drama.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc strictly details the inquisition, trial, and execution of the poor peasant girl from Orleans who took up the Lord's calling, lead a French brigade during the Hundred Year's War, and ultimately liberated her people following her martyrdom. Carl Theodore Dreyer's silent film is an extremely simple work, filmed exclusively on one set and featuring an unrelenting succession of close-ups, that stands among the most powerful and intimate movies ever made. Maria Falconetti, a stage actress who shows zero successive screen credits and two obscure prior ones, delivers a haunting, unforgettable, deeply affecting performance, saying more with her eyes than most performers could with fifty pages of dialogue. The Passion of Joan of Arc makes the case for silent movies, movies as art, and movies as a power to move.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity

A medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) is on a repair expedition led by a cocky, seasoned astronaut (George Clooney) when remains from a destroyed satellite collide with their space station leaving them alone in the dark reaches of space. Now their only hope for salvation lies in reaching the abandoned, neighboring Russian spaceport before running out of oxygen. Gravity is another technically masterful film from Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien) replete once more with a series of unbroken, seemingly impossible shots that, especially in the first passage of the film, seem to go on indefinitely. All this is abetted by a remarkable, beautifully emotive, career best performance from Sandra Bullock who (POTENTIAL SPOILER) has an insanely difficult task of carrying most of this film by herself and George Clooney is perfectly believable in a role where he is basically playing himself.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies

Picasso's The Young Ladies of Avignon and Louis Lumiere's Danse serpentine
As the movies began to burgeon around the turn of the Twentieth Century, Pablo Picasso and George Braques were two of the many people who started to fall under their spell. Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies argues that from these early cinematic experiences, the two young artists gained the inspiration to craft many of their works. Presented and narrated by Martin Scorsese, PABGTTM is a revealing documentary, offering many side by side comparisons of the artists' work and their supposed inspirational sources.  The material does seem slight however, even at only an hour running length, and the film does ultimately grow as repetitious as those Cubist paintings that the early movies spawned. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

This Is Not a Film

While awaiting word on his appeal to a multi-year jail sentence handed down by an Iranian court in response to his government bashing film, director Jafar Panahi surreptitiously films himself sitting around his apartment, talking to his attorney, watching movies, and playing with his pet iguana. Don't let the title fool you, they really weren't joking or trying to be ironic when they named this movie. This is Not a Film is presented as a courageous act of self-sacrifice (we are constantly reminded just how dangerous Panahi's actions are) but is really just an act of self-aggrandizing (not) filmmaking with barely enough material to justify a five minute news segment let alone a feature length documentary. You know a movie has absolutely nothing to offer when the written prologue and epilogue are its only items of interest.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

La Notte

La Notte, the middle film in Michelangelo Antonioni's unnoffically titled Malaise trilogy, follows a discontented writer (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife (Jeanne Moreau) as they make preparations to attend a party. Like L'Avventura which preceded it and L'eclisse which followed, La Notte follows vacuous, upper class sorts to indeterminable destinations but unlike those films it fails to enthrall and tedium quickly takes over. Despite a memorable concluding sequence, La Notte is a mostly dreadful bore and the kind of picture that gives art house films a bad name.