Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

Pete Seeger, who died earlier this week, was known as a walking repertoire of the American Songbook who added a few entries of his own and used this knowledge and his trusty banjo to become a conduit to prove the title suggestion. Seeger lived too full a life to be done justice by my modest aspirations here, but during his storied 94 years he became a tireless champion of leftist causes, from civil rights to antiwar to ecological, while being a primary influence to a generation of earth shaking folk performers, and never deviating from his humble nature. Pete Seeger: The Power of Song is a fantastic documentary from PBS's American Masters series which wonderfully blends archived footage with many of his endearing songs, while he, in between taking an occasional break to chop wood at his rural Hudson River home, and his family guide you through his life. I also appreciated how the documentary occasionally detoured to gain the perspective of common folks who were displeased with some of Seeger's choices, including an protester at a pro-communist rally he headlined or a Vietnam vet from his hometown who was thoroughly disgusted with the artist's visit to North Vietnam in 1972. I must say I was a little irked by the obvious and expected pompous postulations of Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Natalie Maines, and other musicians and the film unfortunately devolves into a change the world advertisement and a too sanctifying portrait of the man but at least for four fifths of its running time, The Power of Song is an excellent look at an impressive life.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Now, Voyager

A homely woman (Bette Davis), controlled by her mother (Gladys Cooper) and desperate not to become an old maid, has a nervous breakdown and is placed in the care of an understanding psychiatrist (Claude Rains) who helps to build her self-confidence. A new woman, she begins an affair with an unhappily married businessman (Paul Henreid) whose daughter is undergoing a similar dilemma while attempting not to fall back into old, unhealthy patterns. Now, Voyager, whose title is taken from Walt Whitman's poem "The Untold Want", is an overlong soaper with not much to offer in terms of plot, but is made worthwhile both by the performances of Davis and especially Rains.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Fallen Idol

A diplomat's young son has the run of the entire embassy, with only a jovial butler and his shrewish, maid wife to keep an eye on him. When the maid has a fatal accident shortly after discovering her husband's liaison with a younger woman, the boy has confused feelings towards his seemingly guilty hero during the course of the police inquest. Just before collaborating together on the singular masterpiece The Third Man, Carol Reed directed an adaptation of Graham Greene's short story The Basement Room known as The Fallen Idol, both an erudite take on childhood and a top shelf thriller that makes excellent use of point of view. The film features an excellent performance from Ralph Richardson, a nicely tuned juvenile one from Bobby Henrey, and more great high angle photography from Reed.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Dancer in the Dark

A single mother (Bjork) in 1964 Washington rapidly losing her vision saves every penny earned at her factory job, which she barely hangs on to thanks to the help of a kindly coworker (Catherine Deneuve), so she can procure an ocular operation to ensure her son won't suffer the same fate. Freely breaking into  song and dance numbers while preparing for a stage production of Sound of Music and brushing off a strange admirer (Peter Stormare), her life takes a bleak turn when a law enforcement officer (David Morse) commits a callow offense against her. Lars von Trier's bizarre take on the Hollywood musical works surprisingly well, thanks to Bjork's affecting performance, some very entertaining musical numbers, and the director's expectedly unusual flourishes. Aaso working beyond reason is its cliched, outmoded and nonetheless engaging story while unexpected performers such as Deneuve and a late arriving Joel Grey add to the arrestment.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Stranger Than Paradise

A bohemian layabout and part-time conman (John Lurie) receives an uninvited visitor at his New York apartment in the form of his Hungarian cousin (Eszter Balint) who needs a place to crash for a few days before moving in with her aunt in Cleveland (whatup). After bonding and parting ways, he decides to pay her a visit with his like-minded buddy (Richard Edson) before making another detour to Florida, all a succession of uneventful incidents. Stranger Than Paradise was Jim Jarmusch's breakthrough picture and a landmark in independent filmmaking. It is presented as a series of carefully constructed still shots, filmed in gorgeously grainy black and white, that have the odd effect of captivating and drawing the audience in. The performers are all non-professional, generally likable, and Balint is kind of wondrous as the awkward outsider who seems to have better taste and style than her American counterparts.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Empire of the Sun

A resourceful British boy (Christian Bale) living with his family in Shanghai at the start of World War II, becomes separated from his family during the Japanese invasion and struggles for survival, first on the streets then in a POW camp, while holding on to his love of planes and remaining somewhat aloof about his dire situation. From a book by J.G. Ballard who drew on similar personal childhood circumstances, Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun is visually among the best films he's ever made and features a focused, remarkably aware performance from a young Bale and nice support from John Malkovich who plays a sordid black marketeer. That being said, it is overlong by a third, narratively dense, and grows more frustratingly inaccessable as the film progresses, never allowing the viewer to understand what's going on in its youthful protagonist's head.

Friday, January 24, 2014


After catching the lively Bob Fosse/Kander and Ebb musical when it visited town two weeks ago, I was again taken by the dazzling production and infectious songs and decided to revisit the likewise popular screen adaptation which was a lead player in the musical resurrection of over a decade ago. Watching Chicago, which details the rivalry of two Cook County murderesses sharing the same hotshot attorney and vying for front page ink, I was impressed by how well the story was translated for the big screen  in Bill Condon's inventive script. At the picture received some mild criticism for being overly flashy but it stands to be said that it is never boring, often amusing, and when considering it in terms of gustful performances (Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere, and especially Catherine Zeta-Jones) with a measured one by John C. Reilly thrown in to boot (not to mention they all did their own singing and dancing), we have one of the best cast performances of the last twenty years.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stories We Tell

A highly personal documentary from actress (Dawn of the Dead, The Sweet Hereafter) and director (Away from Her, Take This Waltz) Sarah Polley who, through home movies, personally conducted family interviews, and narration provided by her actor father Michael, traces the history of her vibrant, now deceased mother and how Michael may not have been her actual dad. Stories We Tell is a competent assemblage made with likable people which many reviewers have heralded as original and brave. I found it to be about the most self-serving, ego stroking piece of diatribe I'd ever seen committed to the screen. Polley is like that obnoxious relative you only see once a decade or so at reunions who still can't but help spamming the rest of the family come Christmastime with letters informing what her superlative family has been up to. Unfortunately (unless we had the true courage to walk out of the theater or turning off the DVD player) we don't have the option of pitching this would be update letter as soon as its contents are made apparent. Polley's sister puts it best in the film's opening moments stating, "there must be millions of families with stories like ours, I mean really who the fuck cares?"

August, Osage County

A morose writer (Sam Shepherd) living with his cancer ridden, pill addled, vigorous wife (Meryl Streep) leaves her in the care of a Native American aide (Misty Upham), drives to his favorite fishing hole, and drowns himself in the river. As the family (whose members include Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulrooney, Julianne Nicholson, and Benedict Cumberbatch) gathers for the funeral, barely healed wounds are opened and new ones are created when they quickly sink their claws into one another. The worst part about August, Osage County, written by Tracy Letts from his play, is its promotional campaign whose ads lead you to believe this is another touchy feely dysfunctional family film with an all-star cast swinging for the awards season fences. While elements of the story are alternately cliche, exaggerated, or stagy, much of the acting is over the top, and the material isn't as outlandish as the author's other screenplays (Bug, Killer Joe), Letts' film doesn't pull back and nails many of the family dynamics right on the head while getting a lot of the little things right. Streep is a whirlwind in a showy, commanding performance and any of the other actor's who try to match her, including fellow Oscar nominee Roberts, fail miserably. The movie also features a strong, heartfelt performance from Cooper, who I'm surprised was completely overlooked during awards season, and Martindale, a familiar face (if not name) was also excellent, which was so nice to see having not much cared for her work in the past. I also was drawn to Nicholson, another actress who has been around awhile but is not well known, who delivers a sympathetic, moving performance.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


A beautiful, dedicated, talented, and somewhat harsh physician (Nina Hoss) is relocated from East Berlin to a small pastoral town and kept under constant government surveillance after an committing an unstated criminal offense. There she awaits deliverance from her prominent West German boyfriend (Mark Waschke) while gradually coming out of her shell and becoming involved with a fellow doctor (Ronald Zehrfeld) and the plight of her patients. Barbara is a film that is so involving, so sumptuously photographed, so well acted, and just generally excellent on so many levels that it makes you angry that there was virtually no distribution (it played in town for a weekend) nor awards notice nor word of mouth to speak of and that luckily you caught it (on a whim and after much debate) at home on DVD. Watching Christian Petzold's quietly observant picture, I was reminded of The Lives of Others, another superb, emotionally devastating foreign film detailing life behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s.

The Letter

In the stultifying heat, outside of her husband's Malayan rubber plantation home, a woman (Bette Davis) guns down her lover in a fit of blind rage. As the blood leaves her eyes and the wheels start turning in her ever conniving mind, she begins to calculate her tearful defense, taking in her considerate husband (Herbert Marshall) and just about everyone else in the community except for her lawyer (James Stephenson) who grows wary of her all too convenient story, the title epistle figuring most prominently into his suspicions. The Letter is a dark and moody, taut little picture,  amazingly crafted by William Wyler and featuring a superbly wicked performance from Davis who gets great support from Marshall and Stephenson.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Kill Bill (vols. 1 & 2)

After butchering her wedding party and leaving her inexplicably clinging to life, The Bride (Uma Thurman) seeks revenge on the colorful and treacherous members (Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen) of her former hit squad led by the wily and enigmatic title sage (David Carradine). Quentin Tarantino's passion project, written with his leading lady then severed and distributed in two parts after the initial insane notion of showing it as a five hour roadshow, retains a lot of the fun it provided when first viewed, for me during a less discriminating time. Although much of this is egregiously over-the-top (the infamous Crazy 88 massacre all but takes you out of the film) and some scenes worked as self-contained bits but not within the context of the movie (the animated origin story of Liu's character for one), the movie soars when you let go and let it take over. So many scenes are remarkable (Liu's exit and the trailer park brouhaha are both knockouts), Carradine is unforgettable, and I liked how the picture slowed down a bit for its concluding halve. Thurman, while occasionally irksome, is most impressive while alternating between kicking ass and generating sympathy for her character.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Square

Up close and personal coverage from Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focal point of the Egyptian Revolution that began with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after years of military brutality and oppression. This was followed by yet another ouster, this time of his successor Mohamed Morsi when similar practices continued and were even heightened in some instances, leaving the people continuing to battle the ongoing corruption and attempting to instill a fair form of democracy. The Square, an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary, features extraordinary, often breathtaking footage taken by several protestors off the front lines (a knowing, successful tactic in displaying their government's ruthlessness), but runs into problems in terms of storytelling when the filmmakers attempt to transform their remarkable material into a movie, resorting to following a few revolutionaries who constantly regurgitate the same idealistic platitudes over and over again.

On the Road

After spanning a sizable portion of South America in The Motorcycle Diaries, director Walter Salles covers a good chunk of its neighboring continent to the north as he follows Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and his idol Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) as they gallivant around the United States, smoking grass, stealing gas, listening to jazz, and generally bumming around before turning south for Mexico in this long awaited screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac's landmark novel. With On the Road, Salles hits many of the same speed bumps he encountered in his Che Guevara coming of age adventure story, mainly using extraordinary photography (and in this case using fleeting cameos of famous faces, some of which are very good including Terence Howard, Kirsten Dunst, and Viggo Mortensen) to mask his inability to get into his character's heads whatsoever. It's never fair to critique a film by its book, but that is pretty unavoidable in this case, and Salles and his putrid actors (Hedlund especially as Dean Moriarty who mimicks Stephen Wright's voice, to severe consternation [you know it can't be a good sign when you find yourself rooting for the corrupt good ole' boy highway patrolman as he harasses the protagonists]) seem to have thrown the source material to wind, at least as far as I can remember, in a presentation that misses the point entirely. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscars: Predictions, Thoughts, and Gripes

Well Chuck Berry said it best when he intoned "it goes to show you never can tell" and that is especially true about this morning's Oscar nominations. In a year that was as lacking as any I could remember since I began regularly attending the movies, I was generally pleased with the Academy's choices. Of course I have some bones to pick, the overachieving American Hustle outdid itself again scoring nods in every major category, and Dallas Buyers Club, much like it's indomitable protagonist, brought itself back from the dead (one of the biggest jokes of the day is it's procurance of a screenwriting nod for a movie that resembled little more than an Illness of the Week flick). There were omissions for Tom Hanks, who was strong in two pictures, and in what I perceive as the biggest robbery of the day, Inside Llewyn Davis was virtually unrecognized with only Bruno Delbonnel getting an expected cinematography nod in addition to another minor one. I was very happy with the many accolades for Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street, two excellent pictures that looked like they might be overlooked and it was nice to see The Butler being completely shut out. So, click here for a complete list of nominees, and without further adieu, here is a brief breakdown of the major categories:
Best Picture
Nine pictures, no major surprises or complaints. I couldn't stand American Hustle or Her, but they were acclaimed, popular movies made by trendy people and you can't really argue when critics and audiences have their minds made up before seeing the movie. Dallas Buyers Club is the only unexpected disappointment: it's a movie that doesn't fulfill its promise and winds up being run of the mill, the one thing you thought it wouldn't be. I loved how Philomena received a nomination but I'm curious as to whether its anti-Catholic material was used to sell it to voters. I also liked how Captain Phillips wasn't forgotten (an October release, eons ago for the short term memories of the Academy). The race seems to be between 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and American Hustle (unfortunately I'd give the edge to David O. Russell's unfairly praised picture) but Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street are the best of the lot, both funny and relevant to our times.
Should Win: Nebraska
Will Win: American Hustle
Best Director
The strongest of the categories, only David O. Russell doesn't belong, even though his chances of winning are strong. I won't complain if any of the others do take home the trophy but I think Scorsese had the greatest achievement and most memorable, impressive set pieces (yes, even over Alfonso Cuaraon's mesmeric long takes in space). However, even if Marty doesn't win and hears Russell's name being called, he should go up and accept anyway since his technique was completely ripped off for American Hustle.
Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Best Actor
So Christian Bale dons a pot belly and a combover while affecting his worst Fonzie impersonation and squeezes out one of at least five great(er) performances (Idris Elba, Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Michael B. Jordan, Oscar Isaac) when the Academy bafflingly gives him a nod in an incredibly packed race. That being said I loved the praise for Leo and Bruce Dern, who both did career work and appeared to be on the outside looking in. Someone in Hollywood finally wised up and gave Chiwetel Ejiofor the lead role he deserved and he responded with a remarkable performance and Matthew McConaughey deserves the attention, if not for his great turn, then for his recent acting blitz.
Should Win: Bruce Dern, Nebraska (I always root for the old guys and he was great)
Will Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Best Actress
This category is weak sauce and they could have done so much better. I love how Meryl Streep bemoans award season but always winds up at the big dance, often for unworthy movies. I secretly suspect that she works these nominations (her 18th) into her contract (full disclosure: I have yet to see August, Osage County). Amy Adams and Cate Blanchett don't belong here and I couldn't figure out exactly what either was doing in their respective roles. I loved Sandra Bullock and Judi Dench, I just wish they could have been joined by Adele Exarchopoulous (Blue is the Warmest Color) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said).
Should Win: Judi Dench, Philomena
Will Win: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best Supporting Actor
In all the years I can recall this is the first time I'd refer to this category as fairly lackluster. I wasn't as taken with Michael Fassbender as most. He was good but I prefer to think of this as a makeup nomination for when he was unfairly overlooked for his unprecedented year in 2011. Jonah Hill was deserving and non-actor Barkhad Abdi's nomination for Captain Phillips may be my favorite of the year. On the other end of the spectrum is Bradley Cooper. The guy is on fire right now but if you have to nominate him can't you put him up for something like The Place Beyond the Pines where his work was the only stellar part in an otherwise unworthy picture. Geez, I'd imagine even his work in The Hangover III was more restrained than in American Hustle. This is Jared Leto's year but I wonder if it was really that much of a stretch for him to play a woman. This was also a missed opportunity to tribute James Gandolfini for his fine work in Enough Said.
Should Win: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Will Win: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress
Sing to the heavens, no Oprah! I was dreading the talk show queen's nomination for her all too easy work in the Oscar bait The Butler, which I believe would have surely turned in to a win. Unfortunately we have to settle for Julia Roberts which (again I haven't seen her movie) has to be the result of star power and campaigning. Lupita Nyong'o is being nominated for her 12 Years a Slave work more so for the material than the performance and Jennifer Lawrence is up because she's Jennifer Lawrence. That being said, I really liked the work of Sally Hawkins and June Squibb.
Should Win: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

La Grande Illusion

Two French airmen, one a nobleman (Pierre Fresnay), the other from working class roots (Jean Gabin), are shot down by a mannerly officer (Erich von Stroheim) who lives and dies by the code of war and sees that his aristocratic counterpart is treated with dignity. During their imprisonment, the two friends make several escape attempts before being transferred to a mountainous gulag proudly billed as inescapable (and also where the German officer is now installed as warden) where they naturally plan their illustrious exit. Jean Renoir's roundly trumpeted tour de force functions soaringly on two fronts, first as an intricate, exciting prison escape adventure movie (every subsequent film of its kind [ie, The Great Escape, The Shawshank Redemption, etc.] surely has its roots here) and simultaneously as a critique of classicism and the idea of the nobility of war. Gabin and Fresnay are both superb in winning the audience over and von Stroheim, the purportedly tyrannical director who spent his previous American career embroiled in studio battles before his exile, is absolutely flawless as the gallant German officer.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Breaking and Entering

While personally investigating a string of break-ins at his new office building in Kings Cross, a site chosen in hopes of stirring urban renewal, an architect (Jude Law) embarks on a plutonic relationship with a sagacious and unorthodox hooker (Vera Farmiga) and a physical one with a beautiful immigrant (Juliette Binoche), who is also mother to the teenager responsible for the burglaries. Breaking and Entering is a pretentious,  dialed down drama in what would be the last film from Anthony Minghella, the usually vital director who crafted such sweeping epics as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain. Here he again teams with Law, who is solid as usual and manages to carry the picture while receiving fine support from Binoche and Martin Freeman, who plays his business partner.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mary Poppins

After recently watching the flawed but generally enjoyable Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of Walt Disney's courting of the prickly P.L. Travers who attempts to win the film rights of her Mary Poppins books, it gave me the opportunity to rewatch the childhood favorite. In revisiting the delightful tale of the practically perfect nanny flown in on the east wind to save the emotionally stilted Banks' family with assistance from Bert, the local jack of all trades, I couldn't believe how remarkably well the picture held up and how, in many ways, it might actually play better for adults then kids. Where to begin: The Sherman Brothers witty and lyrical music carries the picture, and not just mainstay numbers but ones which I'd forgotten, which include "The Life I Lead" and the hilarious ditty sung by the stern looking bankers headed by craggily and heavily disguised Dick van Dyke. Julie Andrews is lovely in her screen debut and Oscar winning role and van Dyke is amusing, but unheralded supporting performances also abound: Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice in fine juvenile performances as the Banks children, David Tominlinson and Glynis Johns spot on as the parents, and even further down the credit rung we have great fun with Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw as the domestics, Arthur Treacher as the Constable, Reginald Owen as Admiral Boom, and Ed Wynn, hilarious as the laugh loving Uncle Albert. Additionally, there is Bill Walsh and Don Dagradi's droll screenplay and the wonderfully imperfect production design and animated meshings, all combining to form a marvelous film experience for all ages, the type of which isn't even dared attempted today.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Play Misty for Me

The DJ (Clint Eastwood) of a coastal California radio station receives the title tune request from the same caller on a regular basis during his nightly slow jazz program and shrugs it off with a smile, dismissing the repeat caller as another lonely romantic. While in a bar one night (and on a break from his sweet girlfriend, played by Donna Mills) he is picked up by an assertive female (Jessica Walter) who becomes increasingly difficult to shake following their one night stand and demonstrates disturbing and escalating personality defects when she finally begins to get the picture. Playing a character Eastwood has said is closer to himself more so than any of the other more famous and macho personages he's depicted over his lengthy acting career, Play Misty for Me is a nice little, surely made thriller, his first in an equally distinguished career as a director (his mentor, the director Don Siegel, appears in a recurring cameo as a bartender). The overblown stalker story, which would have been presented cheaply and artlessly 99 times out of a 100, is competently done, with some fine touches added on (the Edgar Allan Poe connections in the denouement are particularly inspired). Clint is assured in his role and Walter, who is probably better known to modern audiences as the mom from Arrested Development, brings potency to her maniacal role.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


Last night, I travelled with friends to The Palace Theater to see Chicago, the long running Broadway musical billed as "a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery-all those things we hold near and dear to our heart" and also a production I'd wanted to see since becoming enamored with the popular movie adaptation over a decade ago. It tells the story of Roxie Hart (Bianca Marroquin), a low rent floozie with big dreams of stardom on the vaudeville stage, who murders her lover in cold blood, hires hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn (John O'Hurley) for her dazzling defense, and strings along her dupe husband (Ron Orbach) while overtaking the begrudging Velma Kelly (Terra MacLeod) as the Windy City's top mistress of murderer's row. With music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, from a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse, and based a stage play from 1926, the era in which it is set, Chicago is a lively presentation with several knockout numbers (Carol Woods was a highlight as Matron "Mama" Morton), a fun, mercurial performance from Marroquin, and O'Hurley (of Seinfeld fame) well cast as the "silver tongued prince of the courtroom." I enjoyed how the orchestra was set right on stage facing the audience with the action taking place as one with it, but I was a little disappointed how there were no other sets used and very little variation in terms of costumes. There was also a slightly unfortunate incident when MacLeod was replaced after intermission due to illness and her understudy (who I thought had a fantastic voice) got tangled in the curtain during the final number, though she and her costar handled the snafu smoothly. Still, through performance, song, dance and its great source music, Chicago delivered.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Spring Breakers/This is the End

After months of stubbornly avoiding Spring Breakers and This is the End, two films made by a handful of wearisome and self-indulgent film personalities, I finally caved in following mounds of praise by critics and audiences alike and all I can offer from this weak-kneed, regrettable decision are The Bard's immortal words: "To thine own self be true."


An introverted, overly sensitive professional letter writer (Joaquin Phoenix), constantly attached to his mobile device and still reeling from his divorce, purchases a state of the art, highly perceptive, ever evolving operating system assigned with sexy and sympathetic female characteristics (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) and embarks on a bizarre and very real relationship with his new, formless partner. Spike Jonze's Her is one of the douchiest movies I've ever seen, an excruciating treatise on love in the modern world, as ineffectual types mope about in their skinny jeans on their cell phones and whine incessantly about their feelings. Appealing actors, in a cast that also includes Amy Adams and Rooney Mara, do what they can with Jonze's maddening screenplay, which could have undergone a few rewrites, preferably by his former working partner Charlie Kaufman. So instead of an intelligent cerebral take on modern relationships in a technology fixated culture, what we are left with instead is little more than a two hour and six minute iPhone commercial.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Frances Ha

An aspiring dancer (Greta Gerwig), 27 years old and still apprenticing, struggles with rent and relationships in the big city as she moves from apartment to apartment, but truly fears losing her best friend (Mickey Sumner) who starts becoming serious with her dope boyfriend (Patrick Heusinger) and out of the blue decides to relocate with him to Tokyo. Frances Ha is Noah Baumbach's return home to New York City (with detours to Sacramento, Poughkeepsie, and a very unexpected and melancholy trip to Paris) and also to the personal, knowing kind of filmmaking on display in his superlative The Squid and the Whale. Working digitally in beautiful black and white (which is reportedly very difficult to achieve), he aimed to capture the feeling of The French New Wave (two of Francois Truffaut's classics leapt to mind for for me, Jules and Jim for the quick paced litheness and even The 400 Blows during certain scenes of forlornness). Coauthoring the screenplay with Gerwig, they both create an original, absolutely lovely lead character which she, along with Sumner who carries the same zeal, performs with a kind of scatterbrained joy.

Yellow Submarine

Yellow Submarine is an animated Beatles feature where John, Paul, Ringo, and George set out on their title vessel to liberate Pepperland following a takeover by the irksome, musically averse Blue Meanies. The film was made without the Fab Four's cooperation until they decided to hop aboard after being taken aback after viewing the inventive final product and agreeing to appear in real form in the tacked on final sequence. The film is trippy, often irritating, and still very imaginative while coming to life during many of its musical sequences, whose numbers are pulled from the eponymous album and other of the group's records (the Eleanor Rigby segment was my personal favorite). The restricted animation style employed by the film also seems to have extended great influence over the art form, with Terry Gilliam's Flying Circus cartoons being the foremost example to spring to mind while watching the picture.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Belle de Jour

A beautiful upper class housewife (Catherine Deneuve) takes no satisfaction in her perfectly eligible doctor husband and often drifts into bizarre masochistic daydreams. One day she stumbles into a bordello and, after some cajoling from the madame, decides to spend her afternoons as a prostitute while her husband is away at work. Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour is a bold tour de force, shot in sumptuous technicolor, that features a continuous succession of masterful vignettes, both real and imagined, that all add up to one unique, extraordinary whole. Deneuve, who was at the peak of her unsurpassed beauty, delivers a daring and commanding performance.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Manhunter/Red Dragon

Two families are brutally massacred with identical modus operandi exactly a month apart from each other. This gives FBI profiler Will Graham no more than the course of one moon cycle to consult with imprisoned diabolical psychopath Hannibal Lecter and capture the media dubbed Tooth Fairy before he claims his next victims. Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon has been adapted twice for the big screen, first by Michael Mann in 1986 as Manhunter and than as a prequel to Silence of the Lambs by the classic's Oscar winning penner Ted Tally in a Brett Ratner rendition. Mann's version is done in his cheesed out 1980s Miami Vice style, is aided by his visual flourishes, hampered by an insufferable soundtrack, and is very effective until it loses steam midway and somewhat collapses during its uninspired concluding shootout. William Peterson as Graham and Tom Noonan as the killer are unconvincing while Dennis Farina as a senior FBI agent and Brian Cox as Lecter (if you can get past Anthony Hopkins portrayal) are strong. 
Ratner's followup to Lambs is unnecessary and mostly does not do justice to its predecessor, except for scenes involving Ralph Fiennes as the killer trying to go straight while wooing a sweet natured blind woman played by Emily Watson, whose moments together are eerily moving. Ed Norton is surprisingly bland in the lead role, as are Harvey Keitel and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who star as the senior agent character and a snarky reporter, respectively) and Hopkins is extremely overcooked in an attempt to savor his return to his legendary character.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Shawshank Redemption

For those of you who have never flipped to TNT at an indiscriminate time, The Shawshank Redemption, an adaptation of a Stephen King novella, tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a timid Maine banker unjustly convicted of slaying his wife and her lover, sent to do hard time under a sadistic warden (Bob Gunton). Eventually gaining his footing, Andy befriends a fellow lifer (Morgan Freeman), earns the respect of the guards and his fellow inmates, and gradually prompts a miraculous reversal of fortune through hard work and an unyielding clinging to the idea of hope. Because of how special it was to me as a kid, it would be unfair to knock Frank Darabont's cherished film, even though it largely plays like self-parody when viewed today, especially during Freeman's pious narration. It's a well-made, extremely positive picture, containing many twists and turns that play like gangbusters the first several times you see the picture, which is about the greatest accomplishment a movie can achieve, but I also think the droves of people citing this as the best movie ever made really need to see more movies.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


The stigmatized daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a Nazi spy is offered a chance at redemption by the U.S. government when she is recruited by an intrepid agent (Cary Grant) to seduce and surveil one of her father's cohorts (Claude Rains). Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, which was scripted by Ben Hecht, is one of The Master's finest and most sophisticated thrillers with Bergman never looking so radiant, Grant demonstrating great appeal, thanks in part to his character's vulnerability, and Rains turning in an absolutely spectacular performance as a not quite so heartless villain. There are many unforgettable sequences here including the extended kissing scene, the wine cellar progression ending with the tracking shot on the concealed key, and of course the brilliantly contrived final escape followed by Rains' long climb to rejoin his mates.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Justin Chadwick's opportunely timed film on the life of Nelson Mandela, which was based on his self-titled autobiography, begins with his early years in a South African tribal village before relocating to Johannesburg where he quickly caught the attention of the African National Congress while working as an intelligent, upstart attorney. From there he met his militant wife Winnie while moving through the ranks of the ANC and, after witnessing no change towards his people under the grossly oppressive system of apartheid, decides upon the use of violence to further his cause. This choice will cost him 27 years behind bars and teach him the self-discipline necessary to lead his people, effect his release, and become both President of South Africa and a unifying international figure. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a rousing and moving biopic which sidesteps the trappings of its restrictive genre until it runs out of steam about halfway through and becomes the conventional, pious picture you hoped it wouldn't. Idris Elba delivers an indelible, quietly powerful performance that invests humanity in his character, partially by incorporating some of his flaws, a lot of which has been lost during sanctimonious discussions on the recently departed statesman. Unfortunately whenever the picture leaves him behind, which it does often beginning with his prison term, either Naomie Harris, who is disappointing as Winnie Mandela, or the montage sequences which detail historical concurrent ongoings, fail to carry the torch. 


A little girl disappears on her way home from school, the latest in a series of child murders that have tormented Berlin. Feeling the heat from a frantic public, the police initiate a major crackdown on the underworld whose members, both hurting from having their pockets lightened and stirred by their consciences, initiate a citywide manhunt in coordination with the authorities. Born in the tenuous and ever shifting film world circa 1930, Fritz Lang's first foray into talking pictures is nothing short of remarkable. With its brilliant use of light and shadows and an involving socially conscious procedural screenplay meshed with a top-end use of sound all centered on a haunting but not altogether inhuman portrayal by Peter Lorre, M is a dark and thoughtful precursor to film noir.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

West of Memphis

The history of the West Memphis Three case, beginning in 1993 with the brutal murders of three young Arkansan boys followed by the arrest, trial, wrongful conviction, and imprisonment of juveniles Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley until their deliverance some seventeen years later following a lengthy public amnesty campaign. Amy Berg's West of Memphis summarizes the infamous and highly publicized case nicely, and while her film adds a few interesting sidebars, it's probably not necessary to seek out by anyone who's seen Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's superior Paradise Lost films, which have the benefit of immediacy. Also, Berg's film forces you to suffer the admonishments of Peter Jackson (who produced the film), Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and other pompous celebrities 
involved in the lobby to free the maligned trio.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Shine a Light

The Rolling Stones have played on the soundtrack of many of Martin Scorsese's classic films, and the authoritative bands' music has clearly been an instrumental part of the director's adult life. In this 2006, two night concert held at Manhattan's Beacon Theatre, these monumental figures of the last half century of film and music collaborated for the first time (well technically Ron Wood appeared in The Last Waltz) in a rigorous (the introductory staging shots are very telling), high energy show. In their mid-60s at the time, the group doesn't sound particularly sharp, but Mick Jagger still moves with a sinuous virtuosity and Keith Richards, Wood, and Charlie Watts all still emit the exuberance of performing. They also receive a nice boost from guest performers Jack White, Christina Aguilera, and especially Buddy Guy and interspersed excerpts from vintage interviews are also a highlight.