Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

With knowledge of a series of Boston area bank heists and staring down the barrel of an extended prison sentence following another arrest for running guns, low level criminal Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) contemplates turning government witness. From a novel by George V. Higgins, Peter Yates' The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an ostensibly informed, low-key crime thriller about bottom feeders and full-time losers that becomes more engrossing as it moves along leading up to its excellent, shocking finale. Mitchum, looking weary and aged, delivers a pitch perfect performance and is surrounded by a den of finely casted good for nothings.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

An English professor (Ewan McGregor) on romantic holiday with his barrister wife (Naomie Harris) in Marrakesh to reinvigorate his strained marriage is beguiled by an abrupt, charming Russian money launderer (Stellan Skarsgard) and then ask to perform a small, simple favor which will soon reveal global implications, involve them with an overeager MI-6 agent (Damien Lewis), and put the couple in imminent danger. Our Kind of Traitor moves with more alacrity than other John Le Carre adaptations I've grown accustomed to, is dumbed down in parts, and pretty baffling as to why the screenplay keeps Harris and a confused looking McGregor around for so long (there's even an unintentional joke to that effect made by Skarsgaard). Still the film is compelling spyfare, often intense, uncompromising and cynical--a nice contrast to the recent, muted le Carre miniseries The Night Manager. Also, Lewis is effective as the straight arrow and Skarsgard steals the show plaing an intelligent, unsophisticated, and unpredictable ruffian.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, June 27, 2016

Game of Thrones

It is difficult to review television without giving away something of the plot. Tread lightly if you haven't seen the series in its entirety.

Season 6 (2016)
Cersei plots revenge while sitting back helpless in humiliation as her son is taken in by the High Sparrow and the gods, Arya learns some harsh lessons in life and death, and Sansa, after being rescued by an unlikely source, reunites with an unsurprisingly resurrected and differently composed Jon as they gear up to retake Winterfell from the odious Ramsay Bolton. In this first season without George R.R. Martin as a writer and as the series eyes the finish line and moves all of its pawns into place, it is nice to see the pace finally pick up with so much finally happening in this multi-storied universe, with also some incredible set pieces to boot in the latter episodes. Still the quality of the dialogue seems the worst its ever been, some stories still seem stuck in limbo (i.e. Daenerys and Tyrion), while Arya's would be powerful tale comes off as insipid and disappointing.
*** out of ****

Season 4 (2014) and Season 5 (2015)
An act of treachery at the Royal Wedding sends Tyrion toward a new destiny and Sansa into greater peril. Daenerys learns how to rule over the recently liberated Meereen and Stannis provides relieve to the Night's Watch only to find more obstacles on his quest to the Iron Throne. The fourth season of Game of Thrones is a marked improvement over the previous one, with the intrigue at King's Landing exciting enough to cover for the dull wheel spinning that continues to go on elsewhere (i.e. The Wall, Meereen), only to return for a dreadful, monotonous fifth season that brings nothing closer to resolution except in killing off several major characters in the end, which surely will thrill many fans but seems a giant waste of their protracted storylines. Without having read the books, it almost seems as if George R.R. Martin crafted an excellent first entry, which was then adapted into a great first season, and then had absolutely no idea what he signed on for or where it was going after that. While watching the "previously on" segment for Sunday's finale I realized that I had never seen a show with so much going on where so little actually happens.
Season 4: *** out of ****
Season 5 ** out of ****

Season 3 (2013)
As the inhabitants of King’s Landing recover from the their costly victory at the Battle of Blackwater and Stannis and his few remaining followers lick their wounds on a remote island, war parties led by Rob Stark and Daenerys Targaryen continue their arduous march on the capital. I wanted to keep this short and sweet after feeling the ire from panning another highly popular show, but season three represents an even steeper decline for this beloved series and, even in the “Golden Age of Television” as many have dubbed it, provides further evidence of the difficulties of sustaining an extended serial, even one based on extensive source material. You can almost picture George R.R. Martin and the HBO execs sitting at their round table brainstorming their smoke and mirrors tactics saying, “You know, we could just go through with a long, boring, protracted season where things wind up basically where they started, so long as we kill off a few major players in the end, we’ll still have ‘em hooked.”
** out of ****

Season 2 (2012)
As three challengers to the throne march upon King's Landing, an unexpected foe lays siege on Winterfell, causing more turmoil and heartache to the already beset Stark family. Tyrion has his hands full as Hand of the King in dealing with his treacherous sister and malevolent nephew. Daenerys, her dragons, and dwindling tribesman remain stranded across the Narrow Sea and Jon Snow begins his tour beyond the Wall as the dreaded Winter finally arrives. Following the spectacular first season of Game of Thrones, the followup series, while still maintaining a high level of interest, meanders and goes in circles for many of its story lines, and ones which were the top draw in season one (ie Daenerys, Jon Snow and the Wall, Rob Stark and his army) now seem to have lost their way and are stuck in standstill for virtually this entire round. Also, following the exit of Sean Bean, the show does not have a lead actor to anchor itself around and while Peter Dinklage (who went from Best Supporting Actor Emmy Winner to first billed in the credits) is excellent, he is not a leading man. I was still engaged with this season. The court intrigue and Arya's storyline worked best for me but the show seemed only interested in its primary story, which was made evident in the climactic Battle of Blackwater episode. "Game of Thrones" is a vast drama, and about as in depth as anything you can expect from television that still nonetheless needs to iron out its storytelling kinks.
*** out of ****

Season 1 (2011)
A long and brutal winter is approaching the kingdom of Westeros and treachery is afoul as the Hand of the King has been murdered. Surrounded by the cunning and powerful family of his duplicitous wife, King Robert Baratheon sends for his old friend and battle mate Eddard Stark to take up the position of the deceased and be unwillingly hurled into the deadly title scheme. The HBO adaptation of the George R.R. Martin novels is an excellent entry in the fantasy genre, simultaneously telling an involving, intelligent, violent, but grounded other worldly tale. Filmed throughout Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as in parts of Morocco, the series features the most stunning visuals to be found in any television series. Its epic cast of mostly British players is uniformly excellent and if forced to select a handful as my favorite I would chose Iain Glen as a courageous exiled knight, Emilia Clarke as his queen and charge, samely exiled, Peter Dinklage as a witty and underestimated dwarf, and Sean Bean as the noble, sullen Eddard Stark. "Game of Thrones" is wonderfully engaging entertainment that isn't afraid to break the "rules" of television and has characterization and intelligence to match its harsh tone and violence.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Thin Man/After the Thin Man

Retired private eye Nick Charles (William Powell) and lively wife/assistant Nora (Myrna Loy) drink and kid in the presences of their terrier Asta while taking on the case of a friend's disappearance, almost for a lark. The sequel involves another missing person's case, this time Nora's cousin's ne'er do well husband, and a greater extortion plot involving the cousin's lover, a wealthy club owner (Jimmy Stewart). The Thin Man delighted Depression era audiences sorely in need of a lift with its playful, funny approach and the unmatched chemistry between Powell and Loy almost incredibly taking precedence to the entangled, secondary Dashiell Hammett murder plot. After the Thin Man (the sophomore effort in a series that spawned five sequels, a TV show, and a remake that has been in development for several years) follows its predecessor almost to a tee, often lamely, Nick and Nora appear less, with a lot more of Asta, who had achieved celebrity status at the time, thrown in for good measure and still retaining the same sense of lightness and fun.
The Thin Man: *** 1/2 out of ****
After the Thin Man: *** out of ****

Friday, June 24, 2016

The American Friend

An American art forger (Dennis Hopper) manipulates a purported terminally ill German picture framer (Bruno Ganz) into committing murders for a shadowy underground organization. From Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game (and remade a few decades on under the same title with John Malkovich), Wim Wenders' adaptation is a somewhat obtuse, enervating thriller given substance through great filmmaking, story elements, and and a central performance by Ganz. Hopper is a strange, though not unwelcome casting choice
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Irreversible

Told in reverse chronological order with a weaving, unsteady, and nauseating camera that gradually stabilizes as we arrive at happier times, we are shown a blissful relationship gone sour due to drug and alcohol use, then a brutal, unflinching subway tunnel rape, and the boyfriend's search through the underbelly of Paris to mete out justice to the perpetrator. Gasper Noe's Irreversible is more of an endurance test than a movie, both cruel and unrelenting, but effectively and consummately uses its narrative device (which had to have been ripped off from Memento) to lead us to a surprising meaningful resolution. Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, married at the time, are outstanding.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Finding Dory

The absentminded blue tang fish enlists the help of an unwilling Marlin and the recently located Nemo in a quest to find her parents with a major detour taking them through a marine wildlife relocation facility. Pixar's much anticipated sequel to Finding Nemo has its moments and some new characters and voice actors really hit their marks (Albert Brooks is a welcomed return also) but is confoundingly plotted with overly slick animation and another disappointing signal from an animation studio that seems to be running low on ideas and gearing its features less and less towards adults.

** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sleeper

A beatnik of little or no importance (Woody Allen) is cryogenically frozen, forgotten about, and accidentally discovered 200 years in the future where he becomes involved with a ditzy woman (Diane Keaton) while playing a major role in the resistance to the oppressive police state currently in power. Sleeper is hit or miss slapstick comedy, typical to early Allen films, that still manages to function as satire.
*** out of ****

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Jurassic World

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the genetically engineered dinosaur hunting ground and after a global corporation had opened a theme park on the same island of carnage and a destruction, a hybrid mega killer that would make Godzilla stop in his tracks escapes from his paddock. Now it is up to a cocky raptor trainer (Chris Pratt) to rescue two young visitors, kin to an uptight park staffer (Bryce Dallas Howard), and restore order to the island hopefully once and for all. The long awaited sequel to supposedly do justice to the original does succeed exceedingly well in the thrill department but is so incredibly stupid, not thought out, and too much of a facsimile of the first outing. And for a movie that cost 150 mil to make and raked in over a billion dollars worldwide, its aesthetic qualites resemble something that would play for laughs on the Syfy channel. Vincent D'onofrio is fun as a campy villain.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, June 18, 2016

She's Funny That Way

After casting a call girl (Imogeen Poots) he has frequented in his latest production, a stage director (Owen Wilson) also hires his wife (Kathryn Hahn), her lover (Rhys Ifans) while the writer (Will Forte) becomes involved with the escort's therapist (Jennifer Aniston). Peter Bogdanovich's latest Hollywood throwback has it's moments, as do Wilson and Aniston among the cast, but is too inconsistent and too bent on emulating classic farce that it loses sight of making a funny, coherent picture. Many cameos. The final one is, let's just say, strange.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, June 17, 2016

Leviathan

An ill-tempered, vodka infused mechanic lives with his new wife and child in a house on the sea that proves desirable for a local mob connected political boss. Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, partially funded by the Federation and subsequently censured, is a critical and concerned look at small town Russian life and local corruption. It is methodical, brooding and long though decently paced, even if this sort of Job like tale seems to be overused as of late. Good acting and great scenery both contribute.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Miracle Worker

The Keller family, totally unequipped to handle their increasingly frustrated deaf/blind daughter Helen (Patty Duke), calls on a noted New England school for the blind. In response, they receive Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), a resolute former student whose unorthodox and uncompromising methods help to break the communication barrier and ultimately bring drastic changes to those in Helen's condition. Directed by Arthur Penn, from a screenplay by William Gibson adapted from his own play, is not opened up particularly well for the screen, feeling more like an episode of American Playhouse, although some interesting ideas are attempted to ease the translation of the action. Worthwhile to see the great, unusual, offbeat physical acting from Bancroft and Duke, who also starred on Broadway in Gibson's play.
*** 1/2 out ****

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Koch

Shortly before his passing in 2013 at age 88 and while still seeming to be very active in politics, film criticism, and Manhattan daily life, former three termed NYC mayor Ed Koch takes us through his storied and colorful reign that oversaw a transformation of the crumbling megacity. Neil Barsky's profile is informative, stirring at points, and aims to be fairly told even though it doesn't quite know how to wrap.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

After 16 years on the run James "Whitey" Bulger, notorious Boston gang leader, FBI informant, and inspiration to Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed, was finally brought to justice, having been charged with 19 counts of murder and forced to stand trial in federal court. This portrait reveals the revolting depths of law enforcement corruption as told through court documents and shows the grief caused to Bulger's victim's families, one a witness who is found dead during the proceedings. Joe Berlinger's documentary on the trial of the popularized longtime head of the Winter Hill Gang and fugitive contains the kind of solid first person accounting the director is known for (Paradise Lost) in addition to good background details, although the film does tend to go in circles.
*** out of ****

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Dry White Season

When his gardener's son is beaten by police and imprisoned, followed by the gardener himself mysteriously disappearing, a school teacher (Donald Sutherland) can no longer turn a blind eye to the prejudicial legal system in Apartheid governed South Africa. Topical in its time, message movie drawn from Andre Brink's novel really lays it on thick while indelicately drives home its point. Sutherland is unconvincing as an incensed South African and Susan Sarandon is underused playing his wife. Worth watching for Marlon Brando's minor role as an irascible but impassioned attorney.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

New York: A Documentary Film

From its start as a Dutch trading post through the immigrant experience up until present day, covering formative politicians including Boss Tweed, Al Smith, and Fiorello Laguardia, and other visionaries that shaped its mindset and the physicality such as Walt Whitman, Frederick Law Olmstead, and Robert Moses, New York: A Documentary Film is a lengthy, comprehensive, informative history of the incomparable metropolis by Ric Burns, told with the same rigor and craft associated with the works of his brother Ken. There are many passages of note and a great use of footage though I somehow wished the film had time to slow down to focus on smaller stories instead of on the hustle and bustle and constant progress and forces shaping the city. The documentary is also hurt by chest thumping New Yorkers, historians and celebrities alike, constantly harping on the vast greatness of the city while adding little to the experience. Lastly, following the 9/11 attacks, a final episode was tacked on detailing the monotonous history of the World Trade Center buildings, which was mostly overlook during the first run.
*** out of ****

Friday, June 10, 2016

Pixote

Abandoned and forgotten children embark down a bleak and irrevocable life of crime, which includes everything from drugs and prostitution to murder, on the streets of Sao Paolo. With Pixote, Hector Babenco takes a neorealist, documentary impersonate approach while immersing his film in the hopeless, variant sociocircles of his young, Brazilian inner city cast, many of whom were plucked right from those very streets, in a work that has the feel of subsequent, acclaimed slum movies (Kids, City of God) which were likely inspirations.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Cinderella

Kenneth Branagh's sumptuously staged adaptation of the familiar folk tale is really just another harmless and well paced Disney retread with a likable Lily James in the starring role and a delicious performance from Cate Blanchett playing the evil stepmother.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Nice Guys

After a flame engulfed car carrying the unclad body of an expiring porn star comes barreling through a home in the Hollywood Hills, it sets off a chain of events uniting an alcoholic P.I. (Ryan Gosling) and a gruff enforcer (Russell Crowe) in an ever complicating case involving a missing girl that ultimately reveals a top level government cover-up. The jokes miss more than they hit, the plot is overly convoluted with the point ultimately not really being about the plot (in line with many Hollywood detective yarns), and the film doesn't really need to be so violent just to fill a Shane Black mold but, in addition to its well filmed 1970s L.A. locales, it is a welcomed sight to see a modern day movie held up by the charisma of its two stars. An imperfect, perfectly enjoyable film outing.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Out of the Past

A man with a mysterious past living anonymously in a rural setting is drawn back into his old life after being recognized by an ex-associate and hired to track down a ruthless gangster's moll. Jacques Tourneur's formative film noir is somewhat dumbly plotted and uninvolving to a point while offering absolutely tremendous dialogue, a quintessential Robert Mitchum performance, and a sly, villainous turn from Kirk Douglas. Great usage black and white.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, June 6, 2016

Last Tango in Paris

While apartment hunting, a middle aged American expat (Marlon Brando) overcome by his wife's suicide meets a young Parisian girl (Maria Schneider) engaged to a witless dolt (Jean-Pierre Leaud), and the two agree to meet again and make a fleeting arrangement based on anonymous, demeaning, and ultimately revealing sex. Bertolucci's controversial and regarded Last Tango in Paris is on one hand an exercise in pretentiousness and crudity while on another a masterfully filmed, complex character study containing what may be the finest, most personal performance of Brando's career.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Finding massive success after leaving his rap group comprised of his more gifted childhood friends and going solo, a hip-hop mega-star's (Andy Samberg) career faces oblivion when his sophomore album tanks following a catastrophic marketing decision and the addition of a psychotic, prank happy rapper to his tour. Popstar, a music industry mockumentary written, directed and starring members of The Lonely Island, takes aim at easy targets and is the kind of stupid, diverting comedy you watch with a bemused smile on your face while hoping it would somehow be just a little bit funnier. It feels long for a short movie, loses focus after awhile, doesn't know when to leave good enough alone, and isn't always served by its endless celebrity role call. Sporadically funny with several hysterical sequences. Will Arnett and Bill Hader stand out in cameo spots. Tim Meadows is pretty great too playing Samberg's manager.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, June 3, 2016

El Norte

Guatemalan siblings (Zaide Silvia Guttierez and David Villalpando) evacuate their homeland and head north to the promised land after their unionizing, coffee picking father is murdered and made an example of. After finally succeeding crossing the border after several horrific attempts, it only sets the stage for the final tragedy as the sibs are manipulated and used by people of all walks. Even when preachy, mannered, or guilt inducing, Gregory Nava and Ana Thomas's El Norte is breathless, vivid, mystical, and at times heart pumping filmmaking that will either spark or reignite your passion for film. The lead actors are lovely, poignant, and heartbreaking.
**** out of ****

Thursday, June 2, 2016

He Got Game

A prisoner (Denzel Washington) currently serving out a manslaughter rap for the accidental death of his wife is given a proposal from the warden: during a week's furlough, convince his estranged son (Ray Allen), the nation's top recruiting hoops prospect, to sign with the governor's favorite college and earn himself an early parole. He Got Game is overlong, obvious, and made with the same explicit racism that mars many of Spike Lee's films. The movie tries to cover too much thematically without conveying much of anything, Allen, at the time a sensation with the Milwaukee Bucks, is an impossibly bad actor, and the ending is anticlimactic. In its defense, the picture is well filmed with several powerful scenes and the Aaron Copland soundtrack is a really nice touch.  Also, it contains what I personally found to be one of the truly fine and nuanced performances from Washington's career.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wild Tales

Six shorts involving people cast into extreme situations: passengers on a plane realize they all have one thing in common; a waitress serves the gangster who killed her family and is tempted to murder; a case of road rage between two bullheaded motorists on a desolate stretch of highway continues to escalate; a demolitions expert goes to war with the parking bureau; an entrepreneur tries to pay off his housekeeper to take the wrap for his son's deadly hit skip; a bride learns she has been betrayed on her wedding night. From Argentina, Damian Szifron's Wild Tales is  darkly funny, undemanding, and competently made but is little more in terms of continuity than a well assembled shorts program, and one that is fashioned in a manner catering to twist frenzied audiences. The best entries appear early on in the picture.
*** out ****