Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Timbuktu

Life in the fabled Malian city is stilted, at first, and then menaced during a Jihadist occupation where sharia law is enforced. Exquisitely filmed with vivid moments and memorable performances, Abderrahmane Sissako's measured movie moves quietly and observantly towards its heartbreaking and inevitable conclusion, but is all the more powerful for its slice of life sensibilities.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Scarlet Empress

Living a quiet life in the German countryside, a young princess (Marlene Dietrich) becomes betrothed to Peter, Duke and heir apparent to the Russian throne. After making the arduous trek to St. Petersburg, she finds her husband (Sam Jaffe) to be an impotent, moronic sadist and her life taken over by a domineering mother-in-law (Louise Dressler). Taking solace in the arms of a rogue officer (John Lodge), she learns the ropes of the courts, and gradually transforms herself into a powerful, calculating Catherine the Great. The Scarlet Empress was the sixth of seven films in a short term though highly prolific collaboration between Josef von Sternberg and Dietrich. Made at the time of the newly adopted Hayes Code, this grand spectacle is somehow still incredibly suggestive (and blatantly carnal at other times), made with a sly sense of humor, and dominated by amazing set pieces, dizzying camerawork, and unrelenting editing. Dietrich runs an impressive gamut, going from naive pawn to manipulative seductress.
**** out of ****

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Easy Rider

After successfully transacting a coke deal, two free spirited dropouts (Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper) cruise from L.A. to New Orleans on their choppers, taking in the counterculture (and a lot of dope and acid), while bearing the hostility and aggression of mainstream society. Easy Rider spearheaded the independent, auteur driven film movement of the 1970s (while also inspiring an onslaught of unworthy knockoffs) and Fonda and Hopper's film, which they coauthored with Terry Southern, is an incredibly photographed and edited, offbeat, rambling outdated snapshot of its time. Hopper's performance becomes tiresome after awhile seeming to have lent itself to hippie cliches, but Fonda is tremendous, and Jack Nicholson is unforgettable in one of the great cinematic breakthroughs playing a drunken philosophical attorney the duo meets along the way.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Danny Collins

When a nearly half century old letter from John Lennon is uncovered bearing advice of the kind of musician he could have been,  an aging, has been (Al Pacino) playing tired hits to a room of old ladies and going home to his disloyal trophy wife while blowing coke in his Beverly Hills mansion decides to get his ship in shape and contact his estranged son (Bobby Cannavale). Danny Collins is hackneyed cutesy tripe that goes to inconceivably trite places and yet another bad trip for Pacino that further evidences that good actors are only as good as the writers, which goes the same for Cannavale, Annette Bening, and a poorly cast Christopher Plummer, none of whom walk away unscathed.
* 1/2 out of ****

Friday, July 22, 2016

Blackfish

An expose on SeaWorld's practice of extracting killer whales from the wild and breeding them while confined to restrictive tanks that threaten the safety of both man and beast. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's documentary focuses largely on the story of Tilikum, an orca who has profitably propagated a profusion of progeny for parks worldwide and has killed three people during his time in captivity. Since its release, Blackfish has had a major impact on public opinion and SeaWorld's bottom line by creating immediacy not only with incredible, heart pounding footage but by bucking genre trends in crafting a succinct, well informed doc with perceptive commentators actually worth listening to.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mistress America

A student (Lola Kirke) finding her freshmen year at college to be more lonely and isolated then expected discovers she has a soon-to-be stepsister (Greta Gerwig) from her mother's impending marriage. After acquainting, the slightly older, flighty free spirit takes her under her wing, making her a partner in her many harebrained ventures. Noah Baumbach's Mistress America is well made and mostly intelligent, though given to pretensions, with a very funny final act featuring Michael Chernus and Heather Lind hysterical in late arriving, built up supporting roles. However its hard to see what Kirke's chatacter sees in Gerwig or just what the director was going for in his usually charming leading lady.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Jeremiah Johnson

A Mexican-American War veteran (Robert Redford) drops out of society and heads for the Rocky Mountains where he takes tutelage from a proven fur trapper (Will Geer) and soon finds himself living happily off the land with an Indian wife and adoptive son. When the U.S. Cavalry officer persuades him to lead an expedition over sacred burial ground, the Crow people retaliate by slaying his newfound family, leading to a one man showdown between the tribal nation and the fabled frontiersman. Drawn from the true to life story of John Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp in his novella Crow Killer, Sydney Pollack's meditative mountain man saga lacks a sense of urgency although there is something appealing about a contemplative modern western. This somber mood of the film also makes the sudden, unexpected, and well edited bursts of violence all the more effective. Impeccable Utah locations and flavorful supporting characters are a major asset, and with regards to Redford's performance, it is remarkable that throughout his career he was continually able to make these one dimensional, quietly masculine good guy personas so compelling.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Paper

An editor (Michael Keaton) is married to his third rate, headline grabbing rag of a newspaper, neglecting his pregnant wife (Marissa Tomei) in the process while contending with a new managing editor (Glenn Close) sent in to make cuts and the other variant and volatile personalities around the newsroom. When his mentor and fellow workaholic editor-in-chief (Robert Duvall) receives a terminal diagnosis, he changes his mind about how to present a fishy major story and sends his lead investigator (Randy Quaid) to get the story straight. Ron Howard's The Paper is a confused, unfunny, and supposed tongue in cheek farce which holds the viewer in amazement at the inanities of its plot, turns, and incredibly stupid conclusion. Keaton is amusing, helping to barely keeping the ship afloat.
** out of ****

Monday, July 18, 2016

Medium Cool

A Chicago photographer (Robert Forster) is zoned in on his work to the point where he has little or no empathy for his subjects or what's going on around him. Soon, he finds himself romancing a single mother (Verna Bloom) new to the city and caught up in the chaos surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The great cinematographer and recently deceased Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool is an offbeat, experimental, and political film that doesn't follow any narrative pattern and incorporates highly charged, historically significant live documentary footage. Forster and Bloom are appealing.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, July 17, 2016

3 Women

A self-professed social butterfly (Shelly Duvall) takes on a shy, childlike girl (Sissy Spacek) as a roommate and protege at the spa she works at in the California desert. After a traumatic incident and hospitalization, the two apparently switch roles and following a stillborn birth, the two seem to form a surrogate family with the mute, middle-aged woman (Janice Rule) who paints bizarre, tribal murals on the apartment complex's pool floor. 3 Women is a hypnotic, murky, unconventional, and extremely strange film that Robert Altman claimed came to him in a dream, the effect of which is conveyed brilliantly through the direction and artistry, and owes more than a little to Persona. Spacek and Duvall's performances are complex and sublimely executed.
**** out of ****

Saturday, July 16, 2016

In a Lonely Place

An alcoholic, has-been Hollywood screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) with a reputation for being quick tempered brings home brings the nightclub's coat check girl to summarize the inane book he's supposed to be adapting. Soon he finds himself a prime suspect in her murder but is defended by an eyewitness (Gloria Grahame) with whom he soon forms a toxic relationship. Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place is sharp, cynical, and funny, with crisp black and white photography, a dark, potentially inward looking turn from Bogart, and a great performance from Grahame.
**** out of ****

Friday, July 15, 2016

Shaun the Sheep

In order to get out of the day's work detail, a bright and ornery sheep plays a prank on the farmer that goes awry sending the confused old man's RV barreling down the hilly country roads and into the unfamiliar big city leaving it up to Shaun to rally the flock to go on a rescue expedition. Silent stop-motion animated feature stays true to the Aardman spirit but is extremely slight and seems to be lacking much of the creativity that made its precursor Wallace and Gromit and other of the studio's gems such enjoyable entertainments.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Macbeth

Made in the aftermath of the Manson killings that claimed his wife's life, Roman Polanski's take on Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy of the noble thane overcome with madness by visions of power and glory is a violent, atmospheric, visually exquisite mood piece, infected with a tinge of melancholy, and carried out sublimely by a troupe of unknown actors.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The End of the Tour

After reading Infinite Jest, finally seeing what all the fuss is all about and a little annoyed his girlfriend is so into it, Rolling Stone contributor (and author of another recent, much less in demand book) David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) convinces his editor to do a piece on David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), flies to his home in Bloomington, Illinois, and joins the idiosyncratic, junk food loving, intelligent, gracious, and sometimes passive aggressive subject for his uneventful though self-revealing book tour. James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour is an involving road movie, smartly written, that makes keen observations on friendship, talent, success, self-absorption, and jealousy. The leads are tremendous
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The 50 Year Argument

A documentary from Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi looking into the half century run of The New York Review of Books, a contentious radical publication with a misleading name whose actual stated agenda is to print op-ed pieces tackling hot button issues to affect public opinion. With focus on its founding and long serving editor Robert Silvers, the film covers various articles over the years with appearances from many of their contributors, with topics ranging from the questioning of U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, to the Arab Spring, to a volatile feud between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer ignited by a Vidal piece first issued in the journal. Meandering, as is to be expected with such a cinematically tenuous subject, The 50 Year Argument is interesting in sections, sections you wish would have been elaborated upon.
*** out of ****

Monday, July 11, 2016

Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds Are Forever, the last official Connery appearance as 007, is incredibly cheesy and stupid, though often fun and more bawdy than other series entries up to that point, with a plot involving some incomprehensible nonsense regarding Blofeld (a worthy portrayal by Charles Gray) supplanting a Howard Hughes type figure in a Vegas high-rise while using diamonds and cassette tapes to set off nuclear missiles.
*** out of ****

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Salò

Four degenerate and very powerful officials in Fascist Italy abduct a handful of teenage boys and girls, holding them prisoner in a remote castle, and subject them to all forms of unspeakable abuse, from rape to torture to forced scatological consumption before taking the final, odious step. Nauseating, despicable, and shocking even by today's standards, Pier Paolo Pasolini's notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is also dull and boorish although its biggest impropriety may be the fact that the filmmaker believed he was creating a scathing indictment on fascism, corruption, and depravity, a flawed notion that many of the film's champions have adopted. Thanks to its deserved nefarious reputation and content, Salo has the car crash affect where feel you have to look and, after doing so, you find yourself unable to avert your eyes. In hindsight, I wish I would have trusted my initial instincts and avoided this exploitative refuse.
zero stars out of ****

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Woman's Tale

Much to the consternation of a loving by self-involved son and an uncaring landlord, a sickly and gaunt elderly woman (Sheila Florance) is determined to live out her precious remaining time on her own terms: in her own flat smoking cigarettes, listening to old records, calling late-night talk show programs and offering aid to troubled callers, while comforting a neighbor afflicted with dementia (Norman Kaye) and enjoying the company of a compassionate nurse's aide (Gosia Dobrowlowska). Paul Cox's A Woman's Tale is a beautiful, austere presentation that favors platitudes and borders on imperiousness, but always seems to strike the right notes. It features a sublime and honest performance from Florance, who was ravished with cancer herself at the time of shooting, and a heartrending one from a sweetly empathetic Dobrowlowska.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Playtime

Bumbling Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) meanders around a modern, lifeless Paris, encountering tourists, locals, and other mirrors of himself at an office building and a trade show. Tati's Playtime is an impressive concoction, with expansive set pieces that play out like an ever evolving Rube Goldberg machine but is meandering and self-indulgent, similar to sentiments I had toward his equally regarded Mon Oncle. Again, the canvas is spectacular and easy to get lost in but it seems that the prevailing attitude is that composition is enough to hold viewer interest, and if that is the case, what essentially separates this from a Michael Bay movie?
*** out of ****

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Jimmy's Hall

After a decade living in America, communist agitator Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) returns to his Irish country village to find the recently liberated people living in Depression-era squalor and under the rule of ruthless Church backed landowners. In response he erects a town hall, used for purposes political and otherwise, and draws the ire of a tenacious local cleric (Jim Norton). Ken Loach's Jimmy Hall is one sided. singular, and simple, though passionately made with the same presupposing scenic cinematography that commanded his The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Ward delivers a fine lead performance, Norton makes a veritable villain, and the picture contains several memorable and even powerful sequences: one at the hall where traditional Irish dancers are introduced to jazz, a heated debate among the clergy and their allies, and the hero's mother helping her son elude police capture.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

'71

Sent to quell rioting in Belfast, a British soldier (Jack O'Connell) is mistakenly left behind by his unit, forcing him to stay out the night in a hostile urban terrain. '71 feels somewhat muddled and incomplete, with characters and a plot that should have been fleshed out to a greater degree, and also falls flat when trying to make subtle points pertaining to nationalism, shifting alliances and the like. 
However the action sequences, filmed in a handheld Paul Greengrass vein, are highly effective.
*** out of ****

Monday, July 4, 2016

Coal Miner's Daughter

Born into a large, impoverished family in rural Kentucky and through sheer determination and unmatched vocal talent, Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) rose to become a mainstay at the Grand Ole Opry and one of the most influential Country and Western voices in a generation . Michael Apted's rags to riches profile, drawn from Lynn's autobiography, doesn't avoid musical biopic cliches but Spacek, playing her character at every age from about 13 on up, knocks it out of the park while doing her own singing at that. Tommy Lee Jones as her irascible husband/manger, The Band drummer Levon Helm as her father, and Beverly D'Angelo playing fast friend Patsy Cline (and also doing her own singing) are all great in support, with flavorful local shooting also contributing.
*** out of ****

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Heart of Glass

While an overseer sitting high above the clouds looks down and casts judgement, the townspeople in a preindustrial alpine village struggle to recreate a secret glass formula which the head glassmaker has just taken to his grave. Heart of Glass is one of Werner Herzog's stranger experiments: obtuse, without narrative, and reportedly shot with the entire cast under hypnosis, which affects the film with a hazy, somnolent quality. Still, it contains the essence of the iconoclastic director's great work such as its saturated cinematography and the unforgettable moments, notably the glass blowing sequences, the biblical narration over the nature segments, and a murderer dancing with his victim.
*** out of ****

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

To defend the realm from Napoleon's growing forces, Captain Jack Aubrey (Russel Crowe) leads his modest vessel the HMS Surprise on patrol of the high seas while often consulting with his trusted friend, the ship's physician and naturalist (Paul Bettany). After catching a rogue and superior French craft on their trail, the brazen but principled commander decides to change course and take the enemy head on. Condensed from a series of Patrick O'Brian novel's, Peter Weir's Master and Commander is a rousing naval saga, brilliantly directed, plotted, and with painterly cinematography, that still maintains a touching, beautiful human sentiment. Crowe, in a career performance that was unfortunately overlooked, leads an impressive cast with Bettany as a Darwin inspired doctor, quite brilliant as well.
**** out of ****

Friday, July 1, 2016

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

Directed by Barak Goodman, drawn from the book by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee (who appears throughout the film), but billed prominently under the 'Ken Burns production' banner, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies hits its mark when succinctly and fascinatingly documenting the history of the great scourge but, and it pains me to say it, the human interest stories, though heartfelt and occasionally harrowing, belong in a different kind of docu-series. Also, extraneous commentary from medical experts tends to be redundant.
*** out of ****