Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Big Sleep

Private investigator Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hurled into a complex maze of blackmail and murder when he is hired by a dying, wealthy businessman to resolve his daughter's (Martha Vickers) gambling debts, and ends up falling for her icy, older sister (Lauren Bacall). Howard Hawks' classic noir mystery, from Raymond Chandler' novel and a serpentine screenplay which features partial credit attributed to William Faulkner, is a lot of fun when you focus on the characters and dialogue and abandon all hope on keeping up with the convoluted plot (this is the movie where Chandler reportedly couldn't determine who committed one of the killings). This was the second film which Bogart and Bacall appeared in together, their first as a married couple, and a make or break film for her and their scenes together prove to be the highlight of an entertaining, shambolic picture.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Last of the Mohicans

During the French and Indian War, Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis), an Indian raised white frontiersman, and his adopted father and son (Russell Means and Eric Schweig), rescue the daughter of a British officer (Madeline Stowe) from an ambush led by a ruthless rival tribe leader (Wes Studi) and agree to accompany the surviving members of their party to their destination at Fort William Henry. Michael Mann's adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's classic adventure tale The Last of the Mohicans is ultimately engrossing despite occasional mundane dramatics and a surprisingly lifeless performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. It draws its success mainly from Dante Spinotti's exquisite photography and Mann's galvanizing handling of the material.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

70s TV anchor Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) rules San Diego's nightly ratings with his trusty news team (Paul Rudd, David Koehner, and Steve Carrell) and seems destined for primetime until an ambitious reporter (Christina Applegate) seeks to break the sex barrier and become the nation's first female coanchor. Director Adam McKay along with Ferrell, who collaborated on the screenplay, go after an easy satirical target and stretch their scant idea about as far as it will go and pad their film with several throwaway sequences and a number of lackluster cameos (exception Jack Black, who's a highlight). That being said, this remains one of the most quotable movies in recent memory with Ferrell in rare form, particularly in his crash and burn scenes. Although not feeling compelled to check out the sequel, as was initially planned, Anchorman has at least enough laughs to match its lame gags.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks

P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), a cantankerous old biddy who penned the once beloved Mary Poppins book series, finds herself in dire economic straits after book sales and royalties have dried up. Against every bone in her body she travels to Hollywood to meet with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) who has been at her for the film rights for twenty years, and in her mind seeks to butcher her work just to add one more notch to his belt. Saving Mr. Banks is a mostly entertaining making of movie which keeps cloying sentiment mostly (and thankfully) at bay, before turning it up somewhat shamelessly towards the end. It also employs a flashback structure featuring Colin Farrell as Travers' encouraging, drunkard father which is supposed to help explain her present disposition but ultimately doesn't really mesh with the narrative. Another subplot involving Paul Giamatti as a big-hearted chauffeur is throwaway pap. That being said, the scenes involving the preparations of the classic film are pretty delightful (but could they have hired more smarmy actors than Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, and Jason Schwartzman to play the acclaimed writing team of Don DaGradi and the Sherman Brothers?), Hanks is ideally cast, and Thompson, though there isn't much range to her character, shows what a brilliant performer she is in a concluding scene which requires no spoken words.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort, a Bronx youth of humble beginnings, soaring ambitions, and unrequited appetites began modestly as a grunt at a Wall Street firm before losing his brokerage job during the stock market crash of 1987. Forced to go to work for a rinky dink suburban storefront operation selling penny stocks to desperate investors, he hit upon the brilliant idea of training a band of none too bright, wide eyed entry levelers to pawn these worthless commodities upon the major traders. Setting up his Stratton Oakmont firm in Long Island, a raucous den of unbridled hedonism, Belfort raked it in hand over fist while commanding his troops and bulldozing through masses of pills, booze, hookers, and coke before an SEC fraud charge coupled with an FBI investigation brought an end to his merry reign. Working together for the fifth time, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio push this true life story of greed and blatant self-indulgence to the limit, and instead of moralizing and offering haughty statements on capitalism as one would expect from this type of picture, they present it at face value and make their point in smaller moments amidst all the glut and insanity. The film took a little while to pull me in, and it didn't always work when it did, but when the film clicks it is absolute dynamite. And despite all the constant excesses on hand, Terrance Winter's screenplay manages to captivate and not wear you down like Belfort's redundant, ego-stroking memoir upon which the movie is based. DiCaprio is in top form with another extremely demanding, mostly comical performance and Jonah Hill has also found himself another fine supporting part as Belfort's shameless right hand man. I had problems with some of the casting, Rob Reiner most glaringly as Leo's father and Margot Robbie as his trophy wife but some of the supporting performances are of high order: Matthew McConaughey in the opening scenes, Jon Bernthal as a muscle bound pill pusher, and Kyle Chandler who is integral to some of the best scenes in the picture playing a tenacious FBI agent. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese covers a lot of prior territory, but the film never seems dull or longish during its epic running length, and achieves something remarkable in many of the disorderly scenes and, again, in the fleeting, quiet ones.

The Proletariat Trilogy (Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, The Match Factory Girl)

Kati Outinen in The Match Factory Girl
Three droll, alternately funny and melancholic films from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki detailing lives of quiet desperation on the bottom rungs of the social order. Each center on excellent lead performances with the best of the lot (and the most devastating) being the concluding film. Shadows in Paradise tells the story of a lonely garbage worker (Matti Pellonpaa) whose business ventures are crushed when his partner dies unexpectedly and he renews his life with a homely grocery store check-out girl (Kati Outinen). Ariel tells of a coal miner (Turo Pajala), forced to start over following his termination and his father's suicide, who soon finds himself in hot water with the law. Lastly, The Match Factory Girl details the life of a victim of unremitting cruelty and desolation (Outinen again, heart achingly good), whose existence is as mundane and repetitive as the matchbox making machines she mans.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Polar Express

A young kid on the verge of Christmas disbelief and with a strong inclination to see Santa hops aboard a magical locomotive which appears out of thin air right in front of his door step. Along with a cadre of his wide eyed peers, a punctual conductor, and a duplicitous hobo (the latter two plus three other characters are voiced by and resemble Tom Hanks) on the North Pole bound express, he undergoes a series of adventures that restore his faith in the season. Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express is an adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's classic Christmas children's story  and an early experimentation with motion capture technology. The result is occasionally exciting (this probably would have been a fun one to see in 3D) and contains some good voice work by Hanks, but it is also a creepy, bloated interpretation which adds a bunch of schmaltzy Christmassy crap to a 1,000 word picture book (and a pretty unremarkable one at that, in my own humble opinion).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Scrooged

After half a lifetime of neglecting his friends and family and forsaking the love of his life for power, money, and just plain old self-serving meanness, Frank Cross (Bill Murray), the youngest top executive in television history, spends his latest Christmas Eve cutting Christmas bonuses, firing employees, and basking in self-generated misery while he reaps the benefits of his latest despicable promotional campaign. While preparing for a live version of A Christmas Carol, he will undergo his own transformative experience of Dickensian proportions before the night is through. Richard Donner's Scrooged is a generally welcomed retreat from the usual holiday fodder and an eccentric and often wickedly funny comedy until the fun starts to peter out around the halfway mark. Bill Murray is mostly amusing and receives swell support from an unexpected cast which includes Robert Mitchum, Karen Allen, and Alfre Woodard, although this lends to considerable disappointment later on when the lackluster ghosts are introduced. The opening spoof holiday trailers are a highlight and include titles like The Night the Reindeer DiedFather Loves Beaver, and Bob Goulet's Old Fashioned Cajun Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Bishop's Wife

A newly appointed bishop (David Niven) has been pounding the pavement to raise funds for a new cathedral, both to little avail and at the cost of his relationship to his wife (Loretta Young). Praying for guidance, it arrives in the form of an angel (Cary Grant) who strolls into town and seduces all the women before teaching the clergyman a valuable lesson of love and seasonal cheer. Henry Kosters' The Bishop's Wife, based on a book by Robert Nathan which featured uncredited screenplay work done by Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket, is a much beloved holiday movie which I found to be alternately sappy and disturbing. With an intercessory celestial being at its center, this seems like an obvious attempt to capitalize on the success of It's a Wonderful Life from the previous year and even the child actors who portrayed Zuzu and young George Bailey are on hand as if the producers weren't even trying to disguise the fact.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Vernon, Florida

For a followup to his debut film Gates of Heaven, documentarian Errol Morris profiled a few offbeat members of the title town, a sleepy retirement community, who include a bored traffic cop, a pair of turkey hunters, and a turtle expert. The film is often hilarious, features fine photography, and is done in the director's unmistakable, quirky style of filming his subjects straight on and blurring the line of whether he is showing admiration or making fun.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Best of 2013

So, as summer turned to fall and the movie year seemed like it would fulfill its promise of disappointment, I anticipated this post and writing a snarky year end round-up, something with a title along the lines of The Best of October thru December, 2013. However, as the calendar year churned to its conclusion, and even the sandbagged awards bait movies seamed slacker than normal, I found myself struggling to come up with the standard 10 films to toast, a charge which usually involves weeding. Instead, I offer 9 films which rose out of the black void that was the passing movie year. Of the lot, two were actually released in the year's first half, one isn't technically a movie, and, somewhat dishearteningly, they were all made by established filmmakers. I haven't seen quite as many movies this year and titles like The Hunt, and Ain't Them Bodies Saints are some of the major blips on my radar, and I will amend any titles to the list when applicable. So without further ado here are, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2013:
Paul Greengrass turns another recent news story into a thrilling nail biter, with an assured performance from Tom Hanks and an incredibly engaging one from newcomer Barkhad Abdi
Frances Ha
Excellent trendy film from Noah Baumbach featuring superb black and white photography and an incredible self-styled performance from Greta Gerwig.
The mesmerizing, sustained shots and Sandra Bullock's beautifully expressive performance are the stars of Alfonso Cuaron's space thriller.
The Coens take on the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene to great avail, really honing their peculiar brand nicely. The music, cinematography, and Oscar Isaac performance are all superb.
Another empathetic, humanistic portrait from Alexander Payne, who returns to his home state and spins a story about folks he knows like the back of his hand. And what an overdue opportunity for Bruce Dern, which he absolutely nails. If pressed, my pick for film of the year.
The kind of potentially icky schmaltz that the Hallmark Channel was made for, but in the hands of Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan, and Judy Dench it is a kind of incredible and moving amalgam.
A good old fashioned thriller, unassumingly and sure handedly directed by Stephen Soederbergh.
Jane Campion's unconventional and stirring miniseries was as involving as any feature film released this year.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, back together for the fifth time, craft a hilarious and thankfully non-moralizing picture on greed and excess, which features some of the most memorable scenes of the year.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis


In a Greenwich Village on the precipice of the early 60s folk revival, a struggling troubadour (Oscar Isaac) whose singing partner has just taken his own life ("Who throws themselves off the George Washington bridge?") goes from couch to couch and one low end gig to another while contemplating a return to a mundane, more stable life in the Merchant Marines. Inside Llewyn Davis is another exceptional Coen Brothers concoction, blending elements from their previous works and yet establishing itself as a poignant original. Oscar Isaac has a tremendous breakthrough lead performance and does his own singing along with some of the songwriting on an fantastic soundtrack which also features contributions from Marcus Mumford, T-Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, and the Coens themselves. John Goodman and Timberlake are a hoot in minor supporting roles while Carey Mulligan doesn't quite hit the right notes as a bitchy singer and sometimes bedfellow of Isaac.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

American Hustle

A Laundromat owner (a balding, pot bellied Christian Bale), with a needy wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and son at home, and his insinuating partner (Amy Adams) have perfected the art of the small con, until that is they get busted by an overly tenacious government agent (Bradley Cooper) who coerces them to use their talents in taking down a good-natured politician (Jeremy Renner) among a number of other public servants and organized crime figures. After assembling a superlative cast of A-listers and a nice little recent hot streak in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell has found it opportune to sneak in American Hustle, a confounded, imperceptible, half-cooked con artist caper which barely contains one successfully carried out idea and even less laughs in what really amounts to the director's attempts to infuse his own blend of manic comedy into a deliberate restaging of Goodfellas. I spent half the movie wondering what its talented though misguided cast was attempting to do and the other half imploring the picture, with its interminable pace and slew of false endings, to conclude. The real hustle though, the success of which has been evident in year end critics' lists and sure to follow box office and award season glory, is that Russell's film is not only worth 138 excruciating minutes of your time but also one of the greatest films of the year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Departed

Two members of the same graduating class of the Massachusetts State Police are thrown into a dog-eat-dog cat and mouse game, one (Leonardo DiCaprio) sent deep undercover to take down a Boston crime lord (Jack Nicholson), the other (Matt Damon) a mole in the department for the ruthless gangster. Based  on Infernal Affairs, a 2002 picture out of Hong Kong, and also on the exploits of organized crime boss Whitey Bulger (whose trial just played out in spectacular fashion), Martin Scorsese's The Departed is one of the great cinematic juggling acts with William Monahan's screenplay right on up there with Casablanca, The Third Man, and Chinatown. There are purists who defend Wai-keung Lau's picture, and while it's never fair to knock an original, especially one that's very good in its own right, when comparing it to the remake it is like checkers to chess. As for the acting, I think this is Leo's best work (his scenes with Vera Farmiga are incredibly powerful), Damon is stalwart and carries much of the picture, and the supporting cast, which also includes Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg (aside from his over-the-top introductory scene), is phenomenal. The one exception, sad to say, is Nicholson who is at his creepiest, screen gnashing worst and barely successful in the fearsome way the film intends.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The General

A southern engineer has two passions in life: his sweetheart and his prided eponymous train. Thoroughly dejected and humiliated after being spurned, first by the Confederate Army, then by his Annabelle Lee he seizes upon an opportunity to serve the Rebel cause and win her back when Union troops pilfer his second love. Buster Keaton's The General has been roundly heralded as the silent master's greatest work, and his creative genius and belabored craftsmanship are certainly on display as he plays defense and then offense while chasing and retrieving his locomotive, but to pigeonhole the movie (even in its category as an all time great), I think, has the result of placing his other superlative films on the back burner. That being said, this is a marvelously funny film with seemingly impossible and purportedly authentic stunts. The cinematography is also noteworthy, having been modeled on Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs and hailed by historians as the best of its kind.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte's gothic Victorian novel Jane Eyre is one of the most adaptable books in film history, most recently rendered earlier this year in a wonderful adaptation by Cary Fukunaga. When most people reference the best version though, they often point to this 1943 version starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles and directed by Robert Stevenson. "Jane Eyre" tells the story of a young orphan brought up by her nasty aunt who sends her to an abusive girls school run by a tyrannical zealot. After suffering and surviving the abuses their, Jane is summoned to be the governess to the ward of Edward Rochester, a rich and cagey young man. However, Jane's manner begins to soften the lord and the two begin to fall in love, which is only to be stifled by Rochester's dark secret. "Jane Eyre" is a darkly beautiful film, with Rochester's castle brilliantly captured in all its shadows and angles. Fontaine is ideal as Jane, with her beauty shining through her plain facade. Welles is great as the brooding Rochester, and as always when he stars in a film he is not credited with directing, questions of authorship arise. "Jane Eyre" is a great adaptation of a wonderful story that never fails to be moving with its superbly realized and tragic characters.
(spoilers ensue) 
In 1988, facing calls far and wide to remove Augusto Pinochet from office, the Chilean government held a country wide referendum with a yes or no option as to whether the nefarious dictator should remain in office. With both sides given campaign funds, a flashy ad exec (Gael Gabriel Bernal) is tapped by the "No" camp to head their publicity lobby and decides he is up to the task in the heavily handicapped contest. No, an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film last year, is a fascinating look at the inner workings of its historical campaign. It does lack a dramatic thrust and when the victorious anticlimactic moment arrives, the protagonist looks around the room and asks, "Is that it?" which is pretty much the same thing the audience ponders at the film's conclusion. Still, Bernal is quite good and it is both surprising and engrossing how entrenched the film is in its onerous battle.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Becket

Following the Norman Conquest, King Henry II (Peter O'Toole) now rules England alongside the French aristocracy. After hitting speed bumps with the clergy, he sees his opportunity for a power play when the Archbishop of Canterbury dies and appoints his loyal friend and confidant Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) to the post. However, the honorable Becket hears a calling from God and begins to take his duties seriously, often clashing with the king, and causing the weak leader to reassess the terms of their friendship. Peter Glenville's  film adaptation of Jean Anouilh's stage play "Becket" is a costume drama, done to the highest degree and featuring two lions of the British cinema's finest actors in career defining roles. Both nominated in the Best Actor category for their performances, Burton and O'Toole give completely divergent and entirely effective performances as a brave stoic and a drunken clod, respectively. The great actor John Gielgud also delivers a wonderful supporting turn as King Louis VII of France. "Becket" is a grand entertainment, wonderfully staged and written, and also an extra special delight we are given the pleasure of watching two of film's greatest actors go toe-to-toe in some the of the best work of their remarkable careers.

Gangs of New York

In 1863 during the heart of the Civil War and with a major conscription act on the horizon, a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points, a deadly melting pot on the south side of Manhattan, to seek vengeance on the merciless political boss (Daniel Day-Lewis) who took his father's life. Gangs of New York was a years in the making passion project for Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks (who wrote the screenplay with Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan) whose production was also beset with great difficulties, and the result is an original, full-blooded, imperfect epic. DiCaprio's performance is a mixed bag, alternating between powerful and grossly lacking, a lot of which, I think, has to do with the pairings. For example, Leo will play up to a stronger performer (Day-Lewis) while his work suffers when, how shall I put it, he is met with lesser company (Cameron Diaz is atrocious and a good part of the picture suffers for it). Even the Day-Lewis performance, which I once would have ranked among the greats, while still powerful, often comes off as caricature. Aside from these quibbles with the acting, the rest of the production is on point, highlighted by several heart pounding sequences which include the opening turf war, Day-Lewis' stunt performance, and the draft riots. I must add that this was one of the great, captivating theater experiences I've had and watching it a decade later, though some of its flaws are more evident, much of its greatness is still intact.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

An Air Force general (Sterling Hayden) has just flown off the handle and issues an aerial attack order on Russia, one which will surely result in global annihilation. When he takes his own life as the only person with knowledge of the deactivation code, it is up to his upright British assistant (Peter Sellers) to hurriedly collaborate with the President (Sellers again) and his team of advisors headed by another manic general (George C. Scott), who place their final hopes on a shifty, spasmodic former Nazi scientist (Sellers once more). Stanley Kubrick's classic satire, which he scripted with Terry Southern and Peter George from the latter's book Red Alert, is farcical black comedy pitched at the highest level with frightening implications which are still relevant to this day. Sellers disappears into three disparate roles, generating laughs from all angles and receives uproarious support from Scott, Hayden, and Slim Pickens, who plays the commander of Hayden's bomber, all portraying incompetent zealots.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Kundun

Kundun begins with the expansive search to find a child worthy of taking up the mantle of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, and details his coming of age (where he quickly discovers the immensity of his charge) before having to ward off the encroaching Chinese until his inevitable exile which is still in place to this day. Martin Scorsese's film, which appears to have been a cathartic change of pace following the out of hand violence of Casino, is beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, features an exemplary Philip Glass score, and contains some extraordinary sequences but is hurt by overlength punctuated by too many storytelling lulls.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Philomena

"Human interest tends to be a euphemism for stories about vulnerable, weak-minded, ignorant, people to fill up the pages of newspapers read by vulnerable, weak- minded, ignorant people."

So retorts a priggish correspondent (Steve Coogan), currently embroiled in a political controversy that cost him his job at the BBC, upon a suggestion of an attempt at pathos in his return to journalism (his Russian history project doesn't seem to be raising many eyebrows). After sulking and mulling it over, he changes his mind and contacts a woman he had recently turned away, who approached him with the story of her mother (Judi Dench) who became impregnated and abandoned as a teen, was taken in by a convent in rural Ireland, and had her child confiscated and sold to the highest bidder. Realizing the magnitude of this lead and its many possible outcomes, he joins the naive, kindhearted, little old lady on a trip to the States to see what has become of her now fifty year old son. The above sanctimonious quote is at the heart of what makes this such a worthwhile experience: what could have been an insufferable buddy movie is instead tinged with just the right amount of honey and vinegar resulting instead in an involving, moving journey. Dench reminds us why she has remained at the top of her field with an affecting, genuine performance and Coogan, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, has devised the perfect role for his own prickly personality. Stephen Frears' film has generated a small storm of controversy for taking big shots at both the Catholic Church and the American Right, and the picture definitely has the capacity to both alienate and inflame, but at its core is the story of two people, one decent, one mindful, who combine to form a humanistic portrait.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Casino

The rise and fall of crackerjack handicapper Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro playing a character inspired by Lefty Rosenthal), as his acute abilities earn him the reins of the mob controlled Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas before his hot headed best friend/enforcer (Joe Pesci), a gorgeous and avaricious call girl (Sharon Stone), and his own vanity all combine to topple his empire. Working again with Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese's Casino is another detailed, stylish, and richly textured work that, while bordering a little too closely to Goodfellas territory, still makes for a riveting entertainment for the duration of its extensive running length. The film provides De Niro with one of his career performances, as he somewhat remarkably generates sympathy for an unlikable character. Pesci plays more of the same but is still wickedly amusing and the Stone performance, one I've wavered about over the years, presently strikes me as audacious and powerful. My only major objection is with the level of violence, which is amongst the harshest I've seen in a studio film. What could have been made just as effectively in a more restrained manner serves only to take you out of the picture.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bullitt

A steely, hotshot detective (Steve McQueen) whose star is on the rise is tapped by a shrewd senator (Robert Vaughn) to protect a key witness before federal mob trial. What begins as a simple, somewhat irritating task turns into a perilous chess game as the officer must chase the perpetrators through the sloping streets of San Francisco, contend with the increasingly irritated politico, and unravel the peculiarities at the heart of his plight. From Robert L. Pike's novel Mute WitnessBullitt is best known today for its esteemed car chase sequence, and rightly so, but Peter Yates' film is really just a measured, solidly made procedural. While not really functioning as a character study (Jacqueline Bissett's scenes where she tries to make McQueen come to terms with his occupation only really succeed in showing off her great beauty), the movie is absolutely dynamic as a connect the dots mystery and an actioner. And in the role that defined his career, McQueen clearly demonstrates why he earned his "King of Cool" moniker.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Phantom

A veteran Russian submarine captain (Ed Harris), haunted by his larger than life father's shadow and a devastating incident in his past, is charged with a covert mission to sneak his vessel into enemy territory when he must subvert a crew uprising led by a firebrand (David Duchovny) bent on provoking World War III. Phantom is a pretty atrocious excuse for a war picture with a surefire plot which is inexplicably fumbled and Harris, Duchovny, and company in embarrassing performances while not even bothering to attempt donning Russian accents. The only antidote to having suffered through this dreck, and also the best substitution would just be to watch Das Boot.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bringing Out the Dead

From Joe Connelly's novel drawing on real life experiences, Bringing Out the Dead offers a nightmarish glimpse into the life of a burned out paramedic (Nicholas Cage) as he works the weekend night shift in a Hell's Kitchen where any and everything can happen, which has been all the more amplified by a lethal substance which has just infiltrated the local drug market. Working again with screenwriter Paul Schrader,  Martin Scorsese offers a series of amazingly filmed vignettes, highlighted by a riveting soundtrack (featuring Van Morisson, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M., and Frank Sinatra among others), and is anchored by a harrowing, all-in performance from Cage who receives great support from then wife Patricia Arquette, Cliff Curtis as a neighborhood pusher, Nestor Serrano as a worn emergency room doctor, and John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore who play Cage's colorful driving partners.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Into the White

A RAF aircraft shoots down a Luftwaffe fighter plane and is forced to crash land in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness. Both parties make their wake to the same abandoned cabin, which thankfully is fortified their supplies, but are now forced to contend with each other until a rescue party arrives or until the weather clears enough to make their way to safety. Based on true events, Into the White is an amateurish take on an intriguing story with uninvolving actors and trite storytelling cliches undoing occasional intriguing stretches.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

Like most of the great filmmakers of his and following generations, Martin Scorsese is a cineaste, himself boasting an encyclopedic, obsessive knowledge and deep enthusiasm for classic films. In this four hour plus documentary, the director of such definitive films as Taxi DriverRaging Bull, and Goodfellas takes us through the many movies that helped shape his life and encouraged him to pursue his line of work. Despite the sheer length and simplicity of this project, it is st.ill an entertaining and enlightening work thanks both to Scorsese's engaging personality and his always restless approach behind the camera, even when its just filming himself addressing it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Stoker

In a set-up very similar to Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, a disturbed young woman (Mia Wasikowska), who just lost her father and is also contending with an unhinged mother (Nicole Kidman), suspects something sinister about her visiting uncle (also named Uncle Charlie, and played by Matthew Goode) and finds herself being diabolically attracted to him. Stoker was written by Wentworth Miller (of TV's Prison Break, of all things) and is the first American film from South Korean director Chan-wook Park, whose Oldboy was just recently bastardized by Spike Lee. The film is excellently crafted, exceedingly dark, and features several nicely crafted scenes. However, this picture is all style and no substance whatsoever and makes less than honorable demands of the usually captivating and seemingly sweet Wasikowska, which is disappointing considering how vacuous and unlikable this film is.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nebraska

Without access to a vehicle or assistance from his nagging wife (June Squibb), a confused, alcoholic, and irascible old man (Bruce Dern) is absolutely dead set on walking from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska (a distance of only about 900 miles) in order to collect his million dollar lottery winnings, you know the kind of mailing sent by some promotional company in order to procure magazine subscriptions. Unwilling to listen to reason, his youngest son (Will Forte) decides to humor the old man and take him along for the ride, a bonding excursion which features a trip into the past when they decide to detour in their hometown of Hawthorne. After trips to both Hawaii and California wine country in his last two films, Alexander Payne brings it all back to his home state with another tender and matter of fact look at American life. Here, from a reflective, and alternately hilarious and glum screenplay from Bob Nelson, he uses his sardonic approach to glimpse into a wounded yet jointed family in a part of the country he seems to know like the back of his hand. After over 50 years in the business and nearly 150 film roles, Bruce Dern finally receives the role of a lifetime, generating empathy in nearly every frame from a camera that studies his expressive and bedraggled face. He receives wonderful support from SNL alumnus Forte as his sad sack son, Squibb as his equally dyspeptic wife, and a peppered, impeccably chosen supporting cast. The film is further lifted by Phedon Papamichael's gorgeous black and white cinematography, especially during transitory landscape sequences which are given their own flavor by a beautifully somnolent soundtrack.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Floating Weeds

A traveling theater company visits a small seaside village as the troupe's leader attempts to reconnect with a former lover and his estranged, now grown son, all to the dismay of his scheming, jealous current mistress. Yasijuro Ozu's Floating Weeds is a beautifully understated remake of his own 1934 film featuring radiant coloring and excellent emotive acting, all resulting in a thoughtfully poignant picture that is impossible not to respond to.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fast Five

Paul Walker and Jordana Brewster spring the Diesel from prison and escape to Rio to hideout. Desperate for funds, the couple join the unwelcoming Diesel on a heist of DEA seized whips, from the same locomotive on which the agents are accompanying them. After the attempted jacking goes wrong, and Walker and the Diesel do an 80 foot plus nose dive off a cliff into a river, they now must assemble every principle from their previous adventures and knockoff a drug kingpin's stash which is being stored in police lockup with jacked up super cop The Rock in hot pursuit. "Fast Five" (yes the fifth installment) is actually a pretty fun ride for its intentionally unintentionally funny first half hour. Then, as the cast members from the other films are rounded up, all the fun is sucked out of the film and it begins to resemble an "Ocean's 11" knockoff. Also the action scenes which are at first so well choreographed and cleanly filmed (not queasy cam) quickly degenerate, becoming standard issue and incomprehensible. I haven't seen any "The Fast and the Furious" films since the first one and didn't much desire to see this installment but did anyway due to good word-of-mouth. I don't regret watching it. I actually enjoyed doing so. I can only imagine what could have been if they were able to maintain the momentum garnered at the outset.

Martin Scorsese Directs

Martin Scorsese Directs was one of the early entries in PBS' American Masters series and was released in conjunction with the premiere of Goodfellas (the documentary features some great footage from the set). Even during this middle period of the celebrated, distinctive, and neurotic director's career, who had thus far helmed such masterworks as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, he was already being mentioned among the likes of Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock. The documentary is an engaging and often very funny celebration of his life and career by many friends and collaborators, including Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Steven Spielberg, Roger Corman, Thelma Schoonmaker, John Cassavetes, and of course, his parents.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Red Badge of Courage

A Union Army private at an unnamed battle (supposedly inspiration for the story was drawn from the fighting at Chancellorsville) finds his grit and fortitude tested as he is hurled head on into the unforgiving blazes of war. The Red Badge of Courage is a dense, compacted take on Stephen Crane's classic, already concise Civil War tale. Starring war hero Audie Murphy, the film was at the center of a major studio fray leaving director John Huston's severely butchered picture as the main casualty.