Sunday, January 31, 2016

Life Itself

A retrospective on the life and work of Roger Ebert, from his childhood in Urbana, his time spent as editor of the Daily Illini, battles with alcoholism, his later in life marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith and his forty plus year career as the Chicago Sun-Times film critic where he often engaged in verbal war with television sidekick Gene Siskel and became known (with a large assist from the internet and social media) as the world's most influential film critic, all of which is intertwined with footage from his hospital room, during a relapse from major cancer bout which took his voice and lower jaw along with his ability to eat, in what would be the last few months of his life. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), produced by Martin Scorsese and joined by other friends (Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay) whose careers its subject helped propel, Life Itself   draws from Ebert's memoirs and, in taking a similar warts and all approach, creates a funny, tender, shocking, and amusing documentary that probably couldn't have been constructed with more care or craft.
**** out of ****

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Starred Up

An ultra violent teenaged inmate (Jack O'Connell) is transferred to the same prison unit as his father (Ben Mendelsohn) where he becomes a target of the authorities and the other inmates, while a therapist (Rupert Friend) takes a special interest in his recovery. David Mackenzie's Starred Up overplays its hand, not satisfied with being a rehabilitation story,  poignant family drama, and a damning statement on the prison system, but rather THE definitive film on these subjects. Further, the film is excessively graphic in places where it doesn't need to be and it also stirs the debate over whether a film protagonist, here in Mr. O'Connell, needs to be endearing for the piece to work. All that being said, there are several powerful scenes and Mendelsohn along with many of the character actors are excellent.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, January 29, 2016

Love Is Strange

An elderly gay couple (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) decides to wed which results in the former being dismissed from his teaching gig at a Catholic grade school. Unable to make rent, they loses their Manhattan apartment and are forced to suffer the indignity of accepting charity from family members. Ira Sachs' Love is Strange is one of those relevant movies released in a timely fashion but completely lacking urgency and blandly told. The film receives a nice boost from Molina's strong performance.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The story of Dieter Dengler, a German born Navy pilot who was shot down by the Viet Cong, captured, tortured, and made a daring, grueling escape. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Werner Herzog documents a remarkable man who relays his harrowing story, part of the time in amazing, vivid recreations that are hard hitting and take on bizarre Herzogian elements. With an eccentric, venturesome countryman it is clear to see why the director was drawn to this material (he would tell the story again with Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn) and it is further evident that he would do whatever it takes to avoid cliched, staid filmmaking, a trapping this wonderful doc could easily have fallen into.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fata Morgana/Lessons of Darkness

Fata Morgana, 1971
Lessons of Darkness, 1992
In 1971, Werner Herzog sought out to make a science fiction film in the Sahara Desert which was later abandoned but resulting in a landscape documentary of the unforgiving, arid region known as Fata Morgana. Twenty Years later the maverick director visited the combustible fields of post Gulf War Kuwait for another similarly haunting apocalyptic documentation. Herzog has spoken of the cinema being devoid of memorable images and his films are known for being comprised of a bizarre array of them, but here these two similar documentaries contain only images and are devoid of narrative and anything else resembling traditional storytelling. Still, both are beautifully shot and even poetic, and, like many of his films, have a certain evocative, ethereal quality.

Monday, January 25, 2016


This Maysles Brothers landmark verite documentary is more interested in observation than developing a story thread while following its four pushy, off-putting Bible salesman subjects although in the film's star Paul Brennan the brothers find a character that fits this bill but who is also funny, contemplative, and tragic.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Sunday in the Country

Shortly before the onset of the Great War, an underachieving painter receives his his rabble rousing daughter, his uptight son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren at his countryside estate, where he lives alone with his faithful maidservant. Bertrand Tavernier's leisurely A Sunday in the Country is both observant and sad containing an exceptional performance from Louis Ducreux and sublime, painterly cinematography.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, January 23, 2016


A sullen British expat, undergoing some sort of mental breakdown and on the verge of a marital crisis, arrives in Cincinnati to deliver a speech at a customer service conference and acquaints a dumpy sales rep whom he finds to be a ray of light in a world of meshed sameness. Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa, which he adapted from his own stageplay and directed with Duke Johnson, is less heady than the cerebral director's other work but still has all those elements (wry dark humor, unforced sentiment and tenderness, the peculiar and bizarre) and told in an odd stop motion format that seems perfectly suited to the material. David Thewlis and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh provide great voicework and it is a neat touch to have Tom Noon provide the voices for the rest of the similar looking cast. The ending seems abrupt though exemplary.
**** out of ****

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Night and the City

An American expat and con artist (Richard Widmark) attempts hustle his way through the dingy and unforgiving London underworld with hopes of making it as a wrestling manager. Jules Dassin's Night in the City is a tough, unique (though owing a little to The Third Man), exquisitely filmed noir with Widmark unsurprisingly perfect playing a weasel. The supporting cast is first rate.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


An intelligent, underachieving single mother (Jennifer Lawrence) works at an airline counter and lives at home with her depressed TV addicted mother (Virginia Madsen), an encouraging grandmother (Diane Ladd), her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), and acerbic father (Robert De Niro) until the day she realizes her dream: inventing the Miracle Mop. Joy is more of the same pointless manic fare from David O. Russell, here an incredibly slight story that is somehow a biographical composite of several women, but is surprising in that it makes for a nice little vehicle for Ms. Lawrence who is actually quite good playing a hard nosed businesswoman/single mom.
** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Danish Girl

In 1920s Copenhagen, an artist (Eddie Redmayne) dresses in women's clothing while posing for his artist wife (Alicia Vikander in a strong performance), discovers he is a woman, and signs on for the world's first sex change operation. I wanted to use this opportunity to discuss the Oscarssowhite controversy, a controversy I shrugged off as another unwarranted Al Sharpton/Spike Lee entitlement cry until I saw Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, some glossy, barely thought out topical tripe boasting a truly pathetic performance from Redmayne which recently garnered him another Oscar nomination (not to mention his win last year for another pitiable Oscar bait performance). Now I feel Redmayne's placement would have been held better by a Creed's charismatic Michael B. Jordan or even Will Smith and his earnest turn in Concussion (I should also mention Idris Elba's great disregarded supporting performance in Beasts of No Nation). But does this mean that the Academy is racist? I think all this tells us is that the industry doesn't make enough strong roles for minorities of all persuasions and that the Academy is (as it always was) incredibly finicky, voting how they're told by studios, managers, and friends or for every undeserving, political movie to come down the pike.
0 stars out of ****

Monday, January 18, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

Aboard a train, a wealthy widower (Fernado Rey) dumps a bucket of water atop a beautiful young woman's (Carol Bouquet, Angela Molina) head and accounts for his actions to fellow passengers of his many continual frustrations with his doused victim and former lover. Like Bunuel's Belle de Jour is grounded in a plot, graspable, though still perplexing and not ambiguous and largely  indecipherable like other of his heralded films (The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).  Rey is excellent and the idea of casting two actresses in one role is a brilliant touch and keeps the viewer guessing.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mr. Holmes

Tucked away on a country estate just after World War II, Sherlock Holmes (Ian McLellan) battles dementia and looks onward to the great unknown as he tries to correctly recall his final case, relates a recent trip to Japan, and gains the attention of his housekeeper's young son, much to her great chagrin. Bill Condon's Mr. Holmes, which reunites him with his former lead actor (Gods and Monsters) and actress (Kinsey), is an exquisitely filmed homage to the much adapted and interpreted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle investigator, and is essentially just a quiet country tale without many of the turns and excitement which predominated the Holmes stories. McLellan is tremendous and it is a nice touch to have him play the detective both on his last case and also 30 years on on the verge of death. Not too sure why Laura Linney was cast as a British housemaid though she still turns in a nice performance even if she isn't totally concerned with her accent.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, January 16, 2016


Jilted by his activist girlfriend, a neurotic products tester (Woody Allen) becomes politically active and finds himself leading a Central American revolt. This early zany Woody entry is hit or miss (largely leaning toward the latter although the concluding court scene is a riot) like a lot of his early straight comic work and though the film is loved by many, it speaks more towards the attempts of a great writer/director attempting to gain footing and his style and skills.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, January 15, 2016

Magic Trip

In 1964, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey and his Merry Band of Pranksters dropped acid, repaired and vividly decorated a dilapidated school bus, and made their way from Northern California to the World Fair in New York, the start of a journey where they would begin to promote the use of LSD in a series of shoes. Largely cobbled together from actual Prankster film, the novelty of seeing The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test brought to life quickly wears off and Alex Gibney's documentary becomes wearisome. Tom Wolfe's book is oddly not mentioned (which is preferable to read over this film) and judging from it, Gibney leaves many glaring omissions and glosses over much more, resulting in a major disappointment from the usually reliable director.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Oscar Nominations Reaction

Here's a list of bulleted points about today's nominations because I didn't really feel like formulating it into a cohesive post:
-Carol and Todd Haynes were snubbed for Picture/Director. The film had more care and craft than most of the films nominated.
-Ridley Scott being overlooked for The Martian is surprising. I thought for certain he would be honored for making a Roland Emmerich movie appear award worthy and for making Matt Damon and his pony tail look cool.
-Steven Spielberg's was able to buy Bridge of Spies a picture nod though he couldn't score himself one for directing.
-Scratching my head at the Adam McKay directing nomination for The Big Short in a film that lacked style and had no direction.
-The Lenny Abrahamson nod came out of nowhere and I can't quite call it deserved
-It was good to see Charlotte Rampling nominated for a film I haven't seen
-Oscar bait Joy and The Danish Girl unfortunately got their due
-For the supporters I would have put Stanley Tucci or Michael Keaton up over Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell over Christian Bale. It was nice to see Rachel McAdams nominated, Rooney Mara should have been up with the lead ladies, and I could have done without Jennifer Jason Leigh.

OK so those just ended up being mostly gripes. Otherwise I was pretty satisfied. Check out the nominees here:

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Cable Guy

A disturbed and needy cable installer (Jim Carrey) relentlessly insinuates himself into the life of one of his customers (Matthew Broderick). After being maligned upon its initial release and although this black comedy clearly doesn't know where it wants to go, The Cable Guy holds up very well and is consistently funny, a marvel when put against today's studio comedies. Carrey is such a gifted comic, even if his bizarre schtick wasn't appreciated at first. The Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller (who directs) cameos are highlights.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


As infection threatens to wipe out the heard, a cruel and selfish cattle rancher (Paul Newman) lives wildly and dejectedly on his family's homestead inspiring admiration from his nephew (Brandon De Wilde), disappointment from his father (Melvyn Douglas), and both lust and fear in his emotionally wounded housekeeper (Patricia Neal). Directed by Martin Ritt from a Larry McMurtry story, Hud is a perfectly realized, doleful and wretched anti-Western, heavy on atmosphere, exquisitely filmed, and featuring an unforgettable cast.
**** out of ****

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Revenant

From an unlikely true to life account, a member of a trapping party (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the uncharted west finds himself separated from his group and alone in a grizzly den where he is unsparingly attacked by the mother. He is then betrayed by a member of his camp (Tom Hardy) who, after bamboozling the other explorers, steals his rifle, slays his son, and leaves him near death in an unforgiving wilderness. The Revenant is ambitious, magnificent, ferocious and astounding filmmaking that seeks to add another revisionary chapter to the Western. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a director who can often come off as highfalutin and pretentious but always aims big and here, with transcendent, Malick-like cinematography, deftly hits his mark. Leo's performance is one of sheer will, playing a character who ran a virtual death gauntlet, and whose many recreations were purportedly performed without a double. Hardy doesn't really reveal any new tricks but puts his acute grumbling intensity to good use and Domhnall Gleeson and Will Poulter are fine in support.  My only complaint is that, for such a lengthy picture, some of the wind comes out of the film's sails in its middle section and ambiguous cliches of modern violent epics seem to take its place.
*** 1/2 out of ****
side rant: i feel like there is something troubling with a certain faction dismissing this movie as a grandiose masculine fantasy when that same camp will likely cheer along with the cruel sadism and wanton senselessness of The Hateful Eight.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

An old nemesis (Ricardo Montalban) returning to exact vengeance and wreak havoc takes control of The Enterprise and seeks to commandeer a life generating entity to use for his own vile purposes. Following an ambiguous first outing they got it right the second time around. The Wrath of Khan features an intriguing story true to the series, with humanity imbued into into it which also offers exciting showdowns and Montalban as an excellent villain.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, January 9, 2016

My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin's hypnotic, dreamlike pseudodocumentary is comprised of interwoven memories, fantasies, and legends of his titular hometown and capitol of Manitoba. My Winnipeg is an impressively constructed and often disarmingly funny film with Ann Savage as the mother in the childhood recreation scenes and the civic legends bit as particular highlights.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, January 8, 2016

On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Bond globe trots on the sly to determine the true reason behind Blofeld's involvement in a seemingly above board business venture (do these movies really need plot descriptions?). In his only outing as 007, George Lazenby leaves a lot to be desired in a performance that seems to be a Connery sendup and little more. Diana Rigg is a weak Bond girl and Telly Savalas makes an effective villain. Much silliness ensues intermingled with some impressive chase sequences.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Tin Drum

A three year old boy witnesses the state of moral degradation and senses what is to follow on the eve of the Nazi takeover in 1930s Germany and hurls himself down the cellar stairs, thus stunting his growth and perpetuating his unchanging childish traits. As he lives through the horrors to come, he protests by banging his toy drum and unleashing shrieks of glass shattering proportions. From Gunter Grass' acclaimed book, The Tin Drum is a crude, hard to stomach allegory featuring David Bennett as an insufferable child actor although the proceedings are sparked by exciting direction from Volker Schlondorff.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Clouds of Sils Maria

While travelling in the Swiss Alps en route to accept an award on behalf of her mentor in Zurich, an actress (Juliette Binoche) learns that the recipient and great playwright has died. Soon she finds herself reluctantly accepting an offer to return to the stage in one of his productions she appeared in twenty years prior, now portraying the older role. She is quickly forced to confront certain truths, feeling threatened by her underestimated costar (Chloe Grace Moretz) and as the lines blur between fantasy and reality in her relationship with her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) during line reading. Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria is beautifully shot, and although pretentious and often haughty, is intelligently written and occasionally magical. Binoche is lovely, typically elegant and emotive, Moretz is quite good too arriving fairly late in the picture, although Stewart, who is getting some awards notice, doesn't quite come off as authentic.
*** out of ****

Monday, January 4, 2016


A Jewish woman feared dead returns home from a Nazi death camp, shot in the face and deformed, and receives totally facial reconstructive surgery. When she chances upon her treacherous ex-husband, not realizing he's looking upon the real thing, he schemes to dress her up and train her as his wife in order to claim the sizable inheritance. In a riff of sorts on Vertigo,  Christian Petzold's Phoenix is another engrossing, low-key, slowly unfolding historical fiction, shot with a saturated color palette and featuring an outstanding performance from Hoss, here offering a completely different turn from that of her work I am familiar with. The film is brilliantly paced, reaffirming the art of the 90 minute movie, and the ending is remarkable.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, January 3, 2016


During the 1952 Christmas holidays, an upper class housewife (Cate Blanchett) whose marriage has run its course meets a younger shopgirl (Rooney Mara) and the two embark on an inexplicable love affair. Carol is absorbing workmanlike filmmaking from Todd Haynes, working from Phyllis Nagy's adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, which could be viewed as a companion piece to his Far from Heaven and even Mildred Pierce at that, and continues to remain deeply engrossing even when material sinks to triteness or over simplicity. Rooney is extraordinary, nuanced and powerfully quiet, although Blanchett gives another affected (and yes occasionally moving) performance which has already garnered her a lot of acclaim. Kyle Chandler is strong in support playing her frustrated husband.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, basically just a simple "North and South" story of two families serving in the Civil War and the effects of Reconstruction, is one of the most contentious films ever committed because of its portrayal of black people and the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan (which was credited with the group's subsequent resurgence) and its place in forever changing the way movies are made. As to the film's qualities, the photography and editing are ahead of their time, the historical reconstructions are impeccable, the melodrama is trite and hackneyed, and the latter blackface representations are undeniably racist, speaking to the fears of Southern integration
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, January 1, 2016

East of Eden

8/2/2010 Of the three roles James Dean starred in, East of Eden was the only one that was released during his lifetime, was one of the two he was posthumously nominated for (the other was Giant), and the film that began the questions “do we have a Brando clone or the next great actor on our hands?” East of Eden is an adaptation of the second half of the book by John Steinbeck, and plays out like a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel in the Salinas River Valley on the dawn of World War I. Cal (Dean) is always vying for the affection of his stern and upright father with his brother Aron. The depressed and seemingly wayward Cal has discovered a secret about his mother, devised an investment plan, and started to feel affections for Aron’s girlfriend, events which will lead to the recreation of the aforementioned Bible story. The film is directed, in Technicolor, by the great and controversial Elia Kazan and he mixes harsh tones with the lush colors of the area. Back to Dean, it does at first seem like he is doing a Brando impression, but he soon makes the role his own and after the film I was left wondering what the last 50 years of film would have been like had fate not taken its toll.
*** 1/2 out of ****
Having finished Steinbeck's epic novel since my first viewing of Kazan's adaptation, I foolishly returned to the picture and wasn't quite as taken by it where, when comparing it to the book, its faults become more evident. A disappointing fact are the film's omissions which drops approximately the first three quarters of the book and sacrificing character complexity and many exquisite and probably translatable passages. Further, the film and its dialogue are dumbed down and explanations are offered for every point. Also, in reconsidering the Dean performance, it now comes off as brooding and overly whiny. That being said, the direction and production values still stand and there is an excellent handling of Jo Van Fleet's complicated character.