Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Grave of the Fireflies

In Kobe, Japan near the close of World War II a teenage boy dodges the constant fire bombings ravaging the city while contending with desperate neighbors and relatives and combatting the pitiless starvation that plagues him, his sister and the rest of the countryside. From Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli and director Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies is dark, beautifully poetic, and all around masterful animated storytelling.

Monday, April 14, 2014

As I Lay Dying

The story of the pitiable, grossly impoverished, backwoods Bundren family and their calamitous attempts to transport their matriarch's coffin to a distant Mississippi town for burial following her agonizing death. I went into James Franco's adaptation of As I Lay Dying rolling my eyes just the same as every other person upon hearing that James Franco adapted William Faulkner. As cumbersome and flat as the film is, I surprisingly found myself half admiring the earnest attempt made to bring a challenging, cerebral, and probably untranslatable novel to the big screen, while the other half was still keenly aware that it just wasn't working.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dead Calm

A naval officer (Sam Neill) and his wife (Nicole Kidman) in mourning over the loss of their infant son take an extended sabbatical on their yacht as they sail around the Pacific in an attempt to salvage their marriage. One day a half crazed sailor (Billy Zane) emerges out of the clear blue horizon on a lifeboat and, upon gaining entry to their vessel, tells a story of how his ship's crew has been ravaged by a case of botulism. When the officer departs to assist the survivors, he soon realizes it all has been an elaborate ruse, with himself trapped on a sink rigged to sink and his fragile wife left all alone to the whims of a madman. Dead Calm is an exceptionally well done thriller and would be a masterpiece if not for the presence of Zane whose laughably manic performance unintentionally turns his scenes farcical and also for a ludicrous ending that would feel more at home in a Halloween sequel. Still, hats off to director Phillip Noyce for his stylish visuals and intense presentation, and Kidman and Neill for their effective and believable turns.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Blancanieves

A girl from Seville who lost her mother at a young age learns the art of bullfighting from her renowned father only to have him stricken from her by her diabolical stepmother. Desperate and alone, she joins up with a caravan of dwarves where she continues her tutelage and faces her destiny. Blancanieves is both an imaginative refiguring of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and also an exceedingly well done silent picture throwback. Filmed on the heels of The Artist, it is crafted with at least as much passion, reverence, technical prowess, and general enthusiasm that in many ways it matches and even surpasses its immensely successful predecessor.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jules and Jim

A sociable Frenchman (Henri Serre) and his brooding German best friend (Oskar Werner) alternately (and civilly) romance a beautiful, free spirited woman (Jeanne Moreau) in the years bookending the First World War. With its amazing, quick-cutting photography and fast paced, catch as catch can narrative, Francois Truffaut's much beloved Jules and Jim is as breezy as its characters in this affable and very, very French film.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Written on the Wind

A Texas oil heir (Robert Stack) galavants with his executive assistant and childhood friend (Rock Hudson) but their relationship takes a hit when the drunken playboy marries a secretary (Lauren Bacall) his pal had his eyes on, and is steered towards tragedy when his lusty kid sister (Dorothy Malone) makes a play for the same friend who was also her childhood sweetheart. On the surface, Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind is a tawdry 1950s soaper but upon closer examination reveals cleverly disguised references to impotence, sexual promiscuity, buried homosexuality and not to mention the usual betrayal, blackmail, and murder, all presented assuredly on an incredibly lush tableau. All the stars are perfectly suited to their roles with Malone even taking home an Oscar for her wide eyed, unhinged performance.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Kid Stays in the Picture

The title decree was proclaimed by legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck in response to a petition signed by Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, and other cast members of The Sun Also Rises who had lobbied to have the woefully inexperienced Robert Evans removed from his crucial role in the picture. Evans would go on to rise fast in the industry as a producer and present some of the most important films of the 1970s (The Godfather and Chinatown for starters) before going into a catastrophic tailspin in the decade to follow. Evans put his life story into a same named memoir which is an ego stroking and wildly entertaining read that becomes extremely compressed, even more egomaniacal, and devoid of most of its value when translated into documentary form. It was interesting to see a few elements described in the book such as Evans filmed plea to the Paramount brass to save The Godfather production, but mostly I spent the film wishing a similar appeal for his own book adaptation had been rejected.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

National Velvet

A bitter ex-jockey wanders the English countryside and is taken in as a farmhand by a family whom he soon plans to rob, but has his heart softened by their kind and indomitable horse loving daughter. After winning a wild stallion in an auction, the two train it to race and enter the powerful beast in the Grand National, with the young girl disguised as a male jockey. "National Velvet" is a gorgeous, sumptuous, and moving family spectacle. From overlooked director Clarence Brown, the film offered a young Elizabeth Taylor her first starring role in which she succeeds swimmingly, with Mickey Rooney starring opposite and providing an equally commanding performance. Supporters Donald Crisp and Oscar winning Anne Revere are delightful as Taylor's parents and the film is brimming with wonderful visuals, engaging scenes, and a whirlwind closing race. "National Velvet" is a family film of great entertainment and earned sentiment, the likes of which are virtually extinct today.

Broken Blossoms

Amidst the squalor of the poorest district of London, the neglected daughter (Lillian Gish) of a barbaric drunken pugilist (Donald Crisp) receives kindness and sympathy solely from a dejected, opium addicted Chinese shopkeeper (Richard Barthelmess). D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms is a simple, silent melodrama, but surprisingly curt and with unforgettable performances by Gish, Barthelmess, and the terrifyingly odious Crisp. Although the film's depiction of its Asian lead character would be seen as grossly stereotypical by today's standards (not to mention that Barthelmess is an actor of European descent), the film is almost shockingly daring and eons ahead of its time.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Always

I recently read Peter Biskind's My Lunches with Orson which is a transcription of taped conversations held between Orson Welles and confidant and fellow filmmaker Henry Jaglom in the final years of the legendary director's life. After getting to know both Welles and Jaglom through these exchanges, I felt I owed it to the lesser known of the pair to check out one of his films. In one particular passage, Jaglom relays his plans for a project which he intends to star in about a separated couple deciding to spend a final night together before finalizing their divorce and Welles responds with merciless discouragement. For some reason, that is the picture I decided to watch. Always is a pretentious, barely watchable, and horrendously acted picture that grows messier as it progresses, one which Jaglom should have heeded Welles' advice in not making and whose instincts I should have trusted by avoiding the film entirely. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery

Ken Burns documentary on U.S. Army Officers Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery's grueling, prolonged, and monumental explorative 1804 journey, which was initiated by Thomas Jefferson, began at St. Louis, and traversed the Pacific Northwest, does an excellent job of visualizing the participant's journey and capturing their ranging thoughts and emotions, but has a tendency to feel as lengthy and redundant as the journey itself. Uninspired guest commentator expousings don't add to the proceedings but fine photography does help to smoothen the ride.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Orson Welles: The One-Man Band

When Orson Welles died in 1985 he left a laundry list of unrealized dreams and incomplete projects which, to name a few, included adaptations of Moby Dick, The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and Don Quixote and also a political satire featuring a Kennedyesque leading figure entitled The Big Brass Ring and Cradle Will Rock, which detailed a famous political staging by his own Mercury Theater. His will bequeathed a warehouse sized treasure trove of much of this footage to his longtime mistress Oja Kodar who, with the director Vassili Silovic, crafted this fascinating love letter to the irascible genius which (of course) winds up being a somewhat depressing tease of what might have been.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Twenty Feet from Stardom

Twenty Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville's Oscar winning documentary, features an assemblage of some lovely and talented women (Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer among others) who have spent their impressive and mostly unheralded careers in the background abbetting the careers of their immeasurably more popular frontmen, some of whom appear here (Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Sting) as they tell their tales of woe in the merciless music industry. The film features some great footage (most memorably in some reminiscences between Clayton and Jagger on their recording of "Gimme Shelter") and some of the sob stories do strike a chord (i.e. Love hearing her voice on the radio while cleaning houses for a living) but the collective accounts of heartbreak become redundant and, in light of a sequence displaying their solo efforts, regretful as it is to say not every star was made for the limelight.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Broken Circle Breakdown

A Belgian couple (Johan Heldenberg and Veerle Baetens) who share an affinity for bluegrass music fall in love at first sight and take their act on the road before they are confronted with several unexpected tragedies. Felix can Groeningen's Broken Circle Breakdown, which was adapted from a play by Mieke Dobbels and star Heldenberg and also an Academy Award nominee this year for Best Foreign Film, tries to mask an overly simple storyline with an unnecessary flashback structure and an unflinching look at its painful subject matter, an approach which occasionally leads itself to almost shameless depths. Lively musical scenes which feature renditions of American country standards in addition to some handsome pastoral photography help but can't save a film that also features inconsistent acting and a screenplay that for some inexplicable reason wants to throw in outdated political barbs at George W. Bush.

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

Orpheus

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

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.