Monday, March 31, 2014

Cutie and the Boxer

Ushio Shinohara is an artist whose paintings or junk sculptures have been exhibited around the world and hailed by critics, but never really were able to sell. The documentary opens showing Shinohara working on one of his boxing paintings with the vigor of a twenty year old, then going inside his cramped New York flat to celebrate his 80th birthday with his wife Noriko, a worthy comic artist in her own right. As Ushio prepares for an upcoming Guggenheim exhibit, Noriko tells the story of their anything but blissful 40 year marriage, largely with the helps of her own strips which feature the couple's eponymous alter egos. Zachary Heinzerling's Oscar nominated documentary takes the road less traveled in his look at this affable couple's lives by focusing on the struggles in both their careers and marriage, and does so with some fine photography which glimpses into their artistic process.  However, the story is so scant and in need of substance that it feels draggy even at its mere hour and twenty minute running time.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station/1964

Prior to 1910, Manhattan was completely isolated from rail traffic, and all commuters and cargo had to make to their way to the isle by way of ferry. It was the vision of Pennsylvania Railroad President Alexander Cassatt to not only construct a tunnel system under the East and Hudson Rivers, but also to erect a grandiose terminal modeled after the Roman Baths of Caracalla. Cassatt did not live to see his dream realized, and the glorious station only stood for just over a century when the railroad company fell on harsh times and sold it off in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden.

A year after demolition began on Penn Station was the year where slowly evolving and sharply opposing agendas came to a head in America: The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston and changed his name to Muhammed Ali. Goldwater Republicans sounded the return of the Conservative movement while student demonstrators at Berkeley essentially kicked off the protest movement. The Civil Rights movement, with factions led by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, fractured, people of all creeds and colors joined in the Freedom Rides, and the nation was shocked and inflamed following the murder of three of their members. In short, things would never be the same. 

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station and 1964, two recent entries in PBS's American Experience program
share very little in common, one a focused. clearly defined documentation, the other much more generalized, and both demonstrating the series at both its best and worst. Penn Station contains remarkable footage of both the massive construction and somewhat tragic demolition of the resplendent structure, is informative and even fascinating on some levels, and features knowledgeable commentators representing their specific field. 1964 is segmented and all over the place, containing a few intriguing sections but mostly covering widely known information, a lot of which has been done to death by the program itself. I did enjoy hearing from contributors who actually lived through the events.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

Perhaps best known to movie going audiences from films by David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and even a role on the acclaimed, short lived TV Western Deadwood, Ricky Jay is the short, bearded, stout, and unassuming character actor with that unmistakable voice who is also one of the most respected magicians currently performing. Deceptive Practice, which is partially based on Mark Singer's 1993 New Yorker article Secrets of Magus which profiled Jay's Mamet directed stage show, and details the sleight of hand master's lifelong obsession with the illusory arts and documents his many influences, several of which he was actually able to train with in his youth. The profile expectedly offers virtually no secrets of the trade but is a real treat, even if you carry no interest in the subject, to be let into the engaging, mysterious necromancer's world and be dazzled by his compulsively achieved suspensions of disbelief.

Monster's Ball

An impoverished single mother (Halle Berry) whose husband (Sean Combs) has just been put to death takes up with one of his executioners (Billy Bob Thornton), a bigoted prison guard also mourning for his son (Heath Ledger) who took his own life after botching the same execution. Monster's Ball is a drab, dreary, and dreadfully preachy film from Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, World War Z) headlined by an abstruse Thornton and a hysterical Berry (whose constant writhing left me reaching for my bottle of Excedrin bottle and scratching my head wondering just what the Academy thinking when they handed her the Best Actress trophy) and compounded by their notorious, prolonged, and almost laughable sex scene. In support, Peter Boyle as Thornton's virulently racist father rivals his Young Frankenstein portrayal for absurdist caricature and Heath Ledger is a saving grace of the picture, delivering a broodingly powerful performance and again reminding us once more what a talent was lost. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014


When a fellow poet is killed following a riot at a cafe, death obsessed Orpheus (Jean Marais) is escorted along with the corpse to a mysterious castle by Death herself (Maria Casares) where the dark angel and her cohorts pass between Earth and the netherworlds. When he returns home, he is unwilling to account for his whereabouts to his suspicious wife (Marie Dea) who falls in love with Death's chauffeur (Francois Perier) and when she meets her untimely Demise, Orpheus follows her on an ill-fated trip to Hades. Much the same as with his masterful adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, I had difficulty getting into Jean Cocteau's take on the Greek Myth during its initial reality set stages until its fantastical passages were unleashed, which again here are imaginative and riveting. The casting too is perfect with each actor just right for their specifically defined characters.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

F for Fake/The Hoax

In 1977, author Clifford Irving shocked the world when he announced he had access to Howard Hughes, the eccentric playboy billionaire who had kept himself in seclusion for nearly twenty years. Securing a million dollar book deal with McGraw Hill, he shocked the world once more when, following the book's publishing, he admitted it all was a sham and wound up serving over two years in prison. Before Richard Gere portrayed this ballsy fabulist in Lasse Hallstrom's 2006 film The Hoax, and even before these improbable events took place, Irving appeared cavorting with a lowly art forger who was the subject of Orson Welles' pseudodocumentary F for Fake. Welles' film, the last one the great provocateur completed as director, is a brilliant assemblage, almost too much to follow at times, and is a whole lot of fun (especially a spurious bit involving Welles' mistress seducing Pablo Picasso) to watch the interactions of these well matched charlatans, Welles included. The Hoax mostly tells Irving's wild story well, but the picture lacks air and though Gere is enjoyable to watch and suited to playing a wily character always thinking on his toes, supporting players Alfred Molina and Marcia Gay Hardin hardly add anything to the production.
Clifford Irving in F for Fake

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Battle Over Citizen Kane

When William Randolph Hearst caught wind that RKO's boy wonder Orson Welles had chosen for his first feature film to tell the life story of a fictional newspaper magnate who gains the world but loses his soul, Hearst sought to destroy all copies of the film, was nearly successful, and actually did succeed in stifling Kane's initial blockbuster success. What Hearst didn't know, was that Welles' film was as much of a reflection of his own life as it was a sharp jab at the all-powerful media tycoon. The Battle Over Citizen Kane is really just separate biographies of these two larger than life personalities which draws fascinating comparisons between both while telling their compelling stories through the use of excellent stock footage, documentary technique, and guest commentators knowledgeable in relation to both megalomaniacs. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Conformist

Set during the reign of Italian Fascism, through a time shifting flashback structure we learn how a spineless middle class citizen joined the secret police and attempted to seduce his radical teacher's wife while struggling with his own sexuality before conscripting to have his one time mentor assassinated. From a novel by Alberto Moravia, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist is a dense and challenging film, spotlighted by great photography, an incredible ending, and a complex lead performance from Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Leviathan is an experimental film that seeks to capture the sights, sounds, and life present on and surrounding a fishing vessel in tempestuous waters off the coast of New England. Not quite a fiction film and not quite documentary, and stripped entirely of narrative, it is among the densest works I've seen and akin to watching a series of high quality, strategically positioned closed circuit cameras. And still, though I occasionally wondered why I was still watching, it unexplainably more or less held my attention for its duration.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Julius Caesar

Joseph Mankiewicz's film version of Julius Caesar, which details the conspiracy to betray the great ruler and the fallout from his assassination, is generally heralded as one the great Shakespearean screen adaptations. I found the film to be not opened up entirely well for the medium and only coming to life with Marlon Brando's second act entrance playing Mark Antony. John Gielgud is also extremely strong as Cassius and James Mason is a surprisingly ineffective Brutus.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Sugarland Express

Outraged that the state has taken custody of their son and placed him in foster care, a young mother (Goldie Hawn) busts her old man (William Atherton) out of a Texas minimum security prison with only a few months remaining on his sentence with aims on reclaiming their child. Instead, they are forced to kidnap a highway patrolman (Michael Sacks) and lead an caravan of lawmen on a multi-county chase. The Sugarland Express was Steven Spielberg's first directorial outing and is done just about as well as as a two hour car chase can be. The famed helmer's ability is evident right from the get go and the movie is only hurt when its satire is kicked into high gear. Atherton is a liability in a vital role and Hawn, at her most stunning, is quite effective in her part.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dirty Wars

While covering the war in Afghanistan, journalist Jeremy Scahill stumbles upon a whitewashed U.S. raid that left five alleged non Al-Qaeda members dead, two of whom were pregnant women. Broadening his investigation, he finds similar covert incidents taking place in countries the United States isn't at war with, including Yemen and Somalia, and soon catches wind of a military group called JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) which gained prominence in 2011 for its chief role in the killing of Osam bin Laden. Dirty Wars is well written, intriguing, and even shocking initially, and Scahill is clearly intelligent and passionate about relaying his message, but his film grows redundant as he tries to oversell his point, and also suffers from the trappings of a first person documentary.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

A pitiful underachiever (Danny Kaye) bullied by his wife (Ann Rutherford), boss (Boris Karloff), and almost everyone else in his insignificant existence finds solace in his frequent and ever increasingly reality merging reveries. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a 110 minute long movie from a 2,000 word 1939 James Thurber short story with its best bits coming directly from the source and a prolonged Kaye monologue that likely surpasses it in length! Shot in unsightly Technicolor, it features a few more impressive riffs from Kaye and Karloff is hilarious as his browbeating boss.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

At Close Range

After the latest row with his mother, an aimless, rural Pennsylvanian teen (Sean Penn) reaches out to his wayward  father (Christopher Walken) for a role in his low rent criminal enterprise. As the law starts to bear down on the operation, the father's true colors show as the son, along with both his brother (Chris Penn) and girlfriend (Mary Stuart Masterson), is placed in severe jeopardy. Now, he must face the difficult choice of going to the authorities or remaining loyal to his psychotic and erratic father. James Foley's At Close Range is a well made true life thriller that boasts tremendous photography, is hurt by turgid plotting, and features acting that is all over the board. Sean Penn is strong in an early career gig, his brother Chris and Masterson add virtually nothing in pivotal roles, and Walken delivers one of those token performances where half the time he's strikingly powerful and the other half you're shaking your head in bewilderment.

I couldn't resist posting the video below, but don't watch unless you've seen the movie. Major spoilage:

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Quiet Man

A disgraced American born boxer (John Wayne) returns to his family's pastoral village in Ireland to reclaim rightful property strong-armed by a prominent proprietor (Victor McLaglen) and complicates matters by attempting to win the heart of his new foe's vivacious, headstrong sister (Maureen O'Hara). John Ford's The Quiet Man was made almost exclusively by an Irish cast and crew and is geared for people of the same ilk, while possibly and quite understandably not holding as much of a vested interest for those of alternate persuasions. Arriving at this esteemed film for the first time, considerably late admittedly (perhaps because I'm not in the club), it lost my attention from time to time and is a tad overlong but is carried by its vibrant performances (Barry Fitzgerald, McLaglen, and Duke, of course, are my favorites), fantastic photography, and the extended brawl which concludes the film.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Whether confronting an uptight colleague (Robert Duvall) or harassing the high-strung Hot Lips (Sally Kellerman), Army Captains Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) and Duke (Tom Skerritt) run their Korean based surgical unit with a sort of anarchic, reckless abandon while still maintaining competence in their work. They are only reinforced when like minded Trapper (Elliot Gould) is reassigned to their division who gleefully partakes in the hijinks. From a screenplay from Ring Lardner Jr., who worked from a novel by Richard Hooker, Robert Altman's precursor to the long running TV series is a funny, way offbeat comedy that nails its satiric barbs, features an engaging performance from Sutherland, and a riotous, madcap conclusion.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Shadow Dancer

A single mother (Andrea Riseborough) working for the IRA and living in Belfast with her equally involved brothers is picked up by a government agent (Clive Owen) and pressured to act as an informant after her part in a subway attack goes awry. In Shadow Dancer, director James Marsh, whose greatest successes have come in the documentary format (Man on Wire, Project Nim), presents a generally well made, character driven thriller which is greatly undermined by a stupid, completely unnecessary plot twist. The unfamiliar Riseborough is superb in an affecting, complex performance as is Owen who lends his usual, competent turn. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Silence

A young girl vanishes from a wheat field leaving a bicycle behind as her only remaining trace. Twenty years later, another girl goes missing again leaving only a two-wheeler in the same exact field. Now the current investigation headed by a grieving detective is intercut with the ongoings following the initial crime. The Silence is a German suspense film crafted by Baran bo Odar from Jan Costin Wagner's novel that features an intriguing, slow burn plot leading up to an unsatisfactory revelation. The film is also populated with cliched characters and marked by some seriously irritating acting.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Poisoner's Handbook

In the early 20th Century, the American household was chockfull of unregulated and highly toxic everyday items which were often used to produce, whether accidental or intentional, a fatal result. As difficult as it is to believe in an era where forensic evidence is nearly irrefutable in the public mind, scientific results in criminal cases were at the time easily fudged, regularly challenged, and often dismissed. When forward thinking Charles Norris took over the corrupt New York City Coroner's Office in 1918 and appointed Alexander Gettler as his chief toxicologist, they fought a long, uphill, and ultimately successful battle in legitimizing forensics. From a novel by Debbie Blum, The Poisoner's Handbook is essentially a compendium of the top cases and challenges Norris and Gettler faced told with both an academic clarity (beneficial for those not scientifically inclined like yours truly) and a genuine flair for mystery storytelling, though it does somewhat begin to border lesser true crime programming.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Armstrong Lie

"You know it's interesting. Living a lie. I didn't live a lot of lies. But I lived one big one.”
In 2009, documentarian Alex Gibney was assigned to cover Lance Armstrong's comeback bid at the Tour de France following a four year hiatus from the famed cyclist's seventh victory at what is largely considered the world's most challenging sporting event. When a doping scandal rocked the sport shortly thereafter, the documentary was shelved and when it was revealed that one of America's most beloved heroes had built his success on a bed of lies, Gibney restructured the film to reflect this discouraging light shed on the story. The Armstrong Lie features tremendous footage and access to Armstrong, both then and now, in addition to many of those close to the heart of the story, but does grow tiresome hearing that one big lie being spun over and over again through stock footage. However, it is strangely compelling daresay refreshing to see a humbled, present day Armstrong answer questions on camera without the usual blubbering that is par for the course in similar situations and to hear him say, point blank, that he cheated, hurt people, and didn't see anything wrong with it at the time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

To Be or Not to Be

A grandstanding actor (Jack Benny) and his gorgeous wife (Carole Lombard) head an acting troupe in Warsaw and have just staged a play lampooning Hitler when the Nazis invade in 1939. Quickly they take up with the resistance by way of an RAF pilot (Robert Stack) (who just so happens to have the hots for Lombard and who keeps rudely excusing himself during Benny's key title soliloquy) and become mired in a complex and dangerous scheme to rout out a German spy. To Be or Not to Be is an uproariously funny and ingeniously plotted wartime comedy from master writer/director Ernst Lubitsch. Benny and Lombard are simply marvelous and Felix Bressart steals the show as a frustrated ensemble player just itching for the opportunity to perform another famous Shakespeare speech.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

In 1959 Francois Truffaut, along with other members of the French New Wave, shook the world when he introduced the character of Antoine Doinel, a class clown quickly graduating to juvenile delinquency with disinterested parents and an affection for Balzac, in his masterful and intensely personal The 400 Blows. Played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, whose earnestness won over his director during the casting process, would return to the character with Truffaut five times over the course of twenty years in a series of films that turned away almost entirely from the inward emotiveness of the debut to a more lightly comic but still mostly masterful touch. 
As part of the 1962 anthology Love at TwentyAntoine and Colette was the first followup and shows Antoine surprisingly on his own as a young man and attempting to woo a young woman whose feelings aren't exactly reciprocated. The film is observant and an excellent example of short form storytelling.
After a six year hiatus, Truffaut and Leaud returned to Doinel with Stolen Kisses, a light, disarming, and insightful picture showing their hero discharged from the military, job hopping, and taking up with an ex-girlfriend.
1970 saw the release of Bed & Board which was a little more dense and mostly focused on the story's comic highs. Here, Doinel finds himself married with a child on the way but still manages to entangled himself in an affair with a Japanese client.
Love on the Run concluded the series five years before Truffaut's death in 1984, although he claimed it was the final installment. Its story shows Antoine's marriage still intact although he continues to seek extramarital company elsewhere. The film imposes a flashback structure composed of clips from the other films which doesn't really work, but the new material is presented in the same vein as the others and is generally entertaining.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Passenger

A disaffected journalist (Jack Nicholson) covering an African insurrection trades identities with his deceased and recently befriended arms dealing roommate. As his coworkers and enemies of the deceased initiate a search and begin to uncover the truth, he takes up with a student (Maria Schneider) and begins his last excursion towards his final, accepted fate. When it comes to the torpor themed films of Michelangelo Antonioni, I think they work best when the director pulls the wool over his audience's eyes and makes them believe they are watching a purposeful, plot driven film as is the case here (and also with L'Avventura and Blow-Up), when actually we are only grasping at straws on a road to nowhere. The Passenger also boasts strong photography and a fine lead performance from Nicholson.

A Woman Under the Influence

A manic depressive middle class housewife (Gena Rowlands) wants nothing more in life than to satisfy her also slightly off husband (Peter Falk) and be a rock for the rest of her family. As her behavior grows increasingly more erratic, he sees no choice but to institutionalize her for six months and hope for the best upon her return. John Cassavetes' independent groundbreaker is more admirable for its efforts and intentions than for actual execution. Like many of his films, A Woman Under the Influence is self-indulgent and feels strained and stretched to the limit far after a scene or an idea has run its course. However, Rowlands and Falk are nothing short of extraordinary for their brave, unadulterated performances.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

A tragic Texan couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) of the Bonnie and Clyde ilk are doomed to lead separate lives when he takes the rap and several concurrent prison sentences following a robbery and fatal shootout. As he relentlessly attempts escape to return to his love and unseen newborn baby, a deputy injured in the fracas (Ben Foster) starts to look after the newly single mother. The regrettably titled Ain't Them Bodies Saints patterns a Terrence Malick film so closely that David Lowery should be forced to share his directing credit with the legendary, reclusive auteur. Oddly, the film still manages to capture an old-time, breathless feeling almost extinct in today's movies and only suffers when it strays away from the ethereal Malickesque qualities and into more standard movie conventions. ATBS is also given silly dimensions when piling on unnecessary Western elements, although a late occurring swamp shootout is exceptionally well done. I liked the actors almost across the board: Affleck hits the right notes, Foster shows us dimensions of his personality we haven't seen before, and I always enjoy Keith Carradine's presence, here playing an old-time gunslinger and overseer of all the characters. Mara surprisingly struggles with her accent and occasionally seems to be in the wrong key for her morose character. It is also worth noting Daniel Hart's tremendous score.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Iceman

The story of Richard Kuklinski, an average family man living in New Jersey in the 1960s and earning a living by secretly editing pornography until the day he discovers he has a knack for contract killing. By the time of his arrest in 1986 he claimed to have over 100 murders under his belt. The Iceman gives the low rent treatment to a scummy, bottom of the barrel true life story which features a torpid, uninvolving performance from Shannon as a character he could play in his sleep and basically does. Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Chris Evans, Winona Ryder, Stephen Dorff, and James Franco turn up in immediately forgettable minor roles.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I had a chance to catch one of my favorites tonight at Playhouse Square. If memory serves me correctly,  I have seen Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in three separate high school or youth group productions and even appeared in our grade school's rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's biblical musical adaptation (I received some serious notices for my performance as the jilted, money grubbing Potiphar). But tonight was the first opportunity I had to see the production put on by a professional ensemble and it was certainly worth the trip. The story straight out of Genesis, which tells of Joe's betrayal by his envious brothers followed by a swift ascendancy due to his soothsayer abilities, is told with energy, enthusiasm, and very little filler. The songs are both lively and catchy, the sets and lighting were extraordinary, and actors Ace Young playing Joseph and Diana DeGarmo as the recurrent narrator along with the rest of the cast were all tremendous. 


Season 4 (2013)
Over three years after the great tempest that almost toppled their fair city, the inhabitants of the 9th Ward celebrate the historic presidential election of 2008, deal with rampant corruption of their local government, prepare for another Mardi Gras, and face their continuing trials and sparse victories: Janette battles with her former partner for the use of her name while reuniting with a subdued Davis whose 40th birthday acts as an unlikely beckoning to maturity. LaDonna tries to get her bar back in order, Annie's musician perils continue, Toni and Terry see daylight in their lengthy fight for justice, and the community prepares a sendoff for one of its most revered members. After some major stumbles in its third season, Treme generally rights it ship and goes out on a high note, in the jubilant yet angry manner you would expect in this its final, abbreviated season. Some items worked soaringly well, Kim Dickens and Steve Zahn's stories and eventual linkup had a special poignancy to them and Clarke Peters and Rob Brown's journey continued to be the heart of the show (their characters alone would be able to carry a series), while other storylines continued to vex or took unfortunately disappointing turns (David Morse's One Good Cop subplot, Melissa Leo's unyielding quest for righteousness, Lucia Micarelli cliched music industry struggles). The series attempts a complete transformation for Wendell Pierce which they successfully achieved in The Wire but here seems forced but works nonetheless. Treme was an ambitious undertaking for series creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer and although it tended to get out of hand with its redundant sermons and often treated its charming cast as little more than mouthpieces for their political rhetoric, it is a spirited show which achieved its goals while showing off the best and worst of its city.

Season 3 (2012)
It is now September, 2007, another year removed from Katrina, but the inhabitants of NOLA continue to bear her effects as they try to get on with their lives: Jeanette (Kim Dickens) continues to dissuade anyone from wanting to enter the restaurant business, as a return home proves less than satisfactory as Davis (Steve Zahn) provides a similar caution against the music industry as he struggles to produce his "epic" opera. Toni (Melissa Leo) teams up with an investigative blogger (Chris Coy) as police harassment hits home and Terry  (David Morse) is given a Serpico-like plot, becoming a pariah in the Homicide Department. Big Chief (Clarke Peters) celebrates the release of the jazz CD with his son (Rob Brown), but receives some bad news which he shares with a new friend (Khandi Alexander) who is undergoing heartbreak of her own. Season 3  is where all of David Simon's sermonizing and blame casting finally begins to wear on the viewer's patience (at least on my own) and  mute some of the elements that it does exceedingly well. Characters who were once perched at the show's zenith, namely Zahn, Alexander, Leo, and Morse, now fall prey to wheel-spinning storylines, while others include Peters, Brown, Dickens, and Wendell Pierce (who unexpectedly endears himself much in the same way he did later on in "The Wire") continue to be compelling as does, of course, the music.

Season 2 (2011)
Season 2 picks up about one year following the storm, and the residents of NOLA and principals on the show are still struggling: Toni (Melissa Leo) is fighting to overcome a personal tragedy and the delinquency of her daughter (India Ennenga) while taking on a case involving an officer involved shooting, while Ladonna (Khandi Alexander) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) face the horrors of urban violence. Batiste (Wendell Pierce), and Davis (Steve Zahn) face the trials of musicianship and band leading while Albert, surprisingly, embraces a musical partnership with his son (Rob Brown). The sophomore season of David Simon's lively series resumes with the same festive fervor that predominated the premier outing and made it such a rare joy. In some ways, Simon is more successful this time around because he has gotten past much of the preaching that slightly inhibited the first run, now allowing him to focus more on the elements that make this series great: namely acting, sensational photography, and of course, the music.
*** 1/2

Season 1 (2010)
Three months after Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans and particularly the cultural district known as the Treme is reeling. As residents begin returning to their homes, they find obstacles in the form of weather damage, police and government obstruction, urban violence, national ignorance,  patronizing, and just general bad luck. As Mardi Gras approaches and the second line parades begin to form, the citizens of the Big Easy fight to restore their great American city. "Treme" is David Simon's followup to his acclaimed series "The Wire" and is not that far removed from that loving portrait of another American metropolis. Focusing on the stories of a few wide ranging individuals, from a woman (Khandi Alexander) and her attorney (Melissa Leo) searching for her incarcerated brother lost in the storm, to a struggling trumpet player (Wendell Pierce), to a trouble making activist (Steve Zahn) and his on again off again girlfriend/struggling restaurant owning girlfriend (Kim Dickens), master storyteller Simon is able tell a touching, angry, and sometimes overbearing story of The Crescent City. Additionally, each episode contains scores of wonderful and (assumedly) authentic New Orleans music. As for the performers, I really liked the work of Alexander, Clarke Peters as a headstrong local, and especially Zahn who gives a magnetic performance as a rapscallion activist. The series does have a tendency to preach and sometimes I have a hard time understanding its viewpoints. John Goodman's blowhard character states that a great city must speak for itself and through this series, for the most part, it does.
*** 1/2

Monday, March 3, 2014

2014 Oscar Afterthoughts

Well, James Franco and Anne Hathaway can breathe a huge sigh of relief. Their thought to be insurmountable Oscar worst stint as co-hosts has been topped this year by Ellen Degeneres, a returning emcee following a seven year hiatus who set a new standard for bland, easy, and unfunny humor in her hosting duties. Cap that off with an entirely predictable award show bestowed by a humorless, MTV geared smattering of presenters, it all and all wound up being the perfect way to top off a horrendous year in movies. Almost every deserving nominee went home empty-handed while each contender expected to win did. This is the first year in memory where no surprises were to be had in major categories and, to make matters worst, none of the winners had anything intelligent or memorable to say. Exactly whose idea was it to forgo any attempt at humor whatsoever during the telecast and whose bright idea was it to bring back performances of all four Best Song nominees (although it was a blessing that they weren't mic'd up properly)? In wracking my brain to find agreeable qualities to attribute to tonight's show, it's sad that all I can come up with is that its producers did their damnedest to keep things brief.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hiroshima, mon amour

A French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) shooting an anti-war film in Hiroshima has an affair with a local architect (Eiji Okada) and the two sustain a lengthy conversation which conjures up both memories of the bombing and, for her, those of her childhood and a disturbing incident during the German occupation. With its dreamlike, unrestricted narrative, Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour was an instrumental work that helped to break the mold of conventional filmmaking and usher in the French New Wave films of the 1960s. Written by Marguerite Duras, it features tremendous performances from Riva and Okada and stunningly bleak photography.

All About Eve

A wide eyed girl (Anne Baxter) saunters outside the dressing room of her favorite star, an self-conscious and aging stage actress (Bette Davis), whose show she claims to have seen almost every performance of. Given an introduction by the screenwriter's wife and armed with a perfectly mastered sob story, she slowly insinuates herself in her idol's life and attempts to steal her part, her man, and her spotlight. Joseph Mankiewicz's All About Eve, the Best Picture winning triumph of 1950, is  sophisticated, cynical, and witty to a tee, almost to a fault, and demonstrates a perception that is almost unknown throughout cinema. It features a career topping performance from Davis who inexplicably went home empty handed from the Oscar ceremony, and fine work from Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Thelma Ritter, and Marilyn Monroe who is particularly memorable in an early, minor role.