Monday, February 8, 2016

The 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts Program (Animated)

cel from Prologue
This year's animated short program, always a fun little excursion despite the quality of its content, runs the gamut from baffling, unspectacular, intricate,  amiable, and finally extraordinary (along with four additional non-nominated films which are likewise a mixed bag). Here's a brief rundown of each of the nine shorts shown in the program:
Sanjay's Super Team
Disney flick tolded in bulgy eyed Pixar style uses someimpressive animation to tell a story of father/son generational disconnect.
*** out of ****

World of Tomorrow
High concept story, simplistic, crude, techno-mation about a young girl being visited by her future consciousness.
** out of ****

Bear Story
complex, workmanlike animation about a city bear being taken from his family.
*** 1/2 out of ****

We Can't Live Without Cosmos
offbeat, amusing friendship tale and Right Stuff riff.
*** out of ****

Prologue
brilliant, violent pencil drawn tale of four warriors fighting The Spartan War. My favorite of the lot. (it was also pretty cool seeing the PSA asking children to be removed from the audience)
*** 1/2 out of ****

CONSIDERED, NOT NOMINATED:

If I was God
So so Canadian short about a kid restoring a frog back to life on dissection day
** 1/2 out of ****

The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse
Gorgeous, naturalistic animation. Probably the most accomplished in the series.
*** 1/2 out of ****

The Loneliest Stoplight
Somewhat uninspired short features Patton Oswalt.
*** out of ****

Catch It
Amusing short, the type of thing that would usually precede a kiddie feature.
*** out of ****

Sunday, February 7, 2016

45 Years

Back home from her morning walk in the foggy English countryside, a retired school teacher (Charlotte Rampling) greets the postman who relays a letter for her husband (Tom Courtenay) stating that the body his former lover has been retrieved in the Swiss Alps some five decades after her death. Now, as the happily married couple prepares for an anniversary celebration, details of that ancient tryst seep into their lives and quickly poison the well. 45 Years, which director Andrew Haigh drew on a David Constantine short story, is subtle, nuanced, and very particular filmmaking, the type that calls for revisitation upon which it would assumedly reveal more of itself. Rampling turns in a brilliant, expressive performance and Courtenay is her equal playing a decent man doing a poor job of hiding his affection for a dead woman.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Virgin Spring

A beautiful and pious maiden leaves her country home making her way through the woods to church when she is accosted and murdered by three vile brothers, who happen to find themselves at their victim's home and subject to her kin's mercy. Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of a 13th century folk ballad (which has been reworked several times as horror fodder that totally misses the point) is haunting, violent, and brooding, filmed with pristine black and white photography with many memorable sequences, the finest being its striking ending.
**** out of ****

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mon Oncle

While staying at his sister's post-modernistic suburban home, Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) takes on all the pointless gadgetry and lifeless architecture while mentoring his nephew. Where Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday was breezy and affable this much admired follow-up is a meandering, tiresome, overlong obvious satire with few laughs but many good sight gags. The set design and photography are impeccable.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Sergio Leone's epic spaghetti western, which details the uneasy alliances formed by the eponymous characters (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach) as search the unforgiving territories in search of Confederate gold, has been heralded as THE definitive western and makes many top 10 all time lists. Revisiting it again I was taken by the vacant landscapes, Ennio Morricone's inimitable score, Leone's brash direction, and the ending of the unrivaled final sequence. Clint's image was cemented here in this film, Van Cleef is an impeccable baddie, and Wallach's performance (forgetting how most of the film really centers on him) is kind of remarkable. Only complaint: for such a lengthy picture, the penultimate bridge detonation sequence really does slow things down.
**** out of ****

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Moonstruck

A superstitious widow (Cher) living in Brooklyn with her parents (Olympia Dukasis, Vincent Gardenia) is about to remarry a baker (Danny Aiello) when she falls for his raving younger brother (Nicolas Cage). Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is beloved by many despite being schmaltzy, stereotypical, and awkward (which is probably a large part of its appeal). Cher and Dukakis are excellent and Cage, Gardenia, and Aiello are amusing in support.
** ½ out of ****

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The One I Love

A couple (Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss) rents an isolated cottage for the weekend in hopes to regroup their marriage and find ideal and subversive alternate versions of each other inhabiting their getaway residences. The One I Love stretches its Twilight Zone premise (the show is even referenced in the movie) and absolutely falls apart towards end when it turns darks and grows confusing and silly. Duplass and Moss are likable and a few laughs along the way help.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, February 1, 2016

John Wick

A retired hitman (Keanu Reeves) mourning the loss of his wife receives a prearranged gift from her in the form of a puppy to act as a surrogate companion. Soon some punks, and kin to a Russian mob syndicate follow him home, rob him, and kill the poor defenseless creature. Obviously, the assassin forced out of retirement and forced to scorch the earth of these foul parasites. Setting aside Reeves' stoic appeal here, John Wick is brainless, senseless violence made for the Call of Duty crowd, in a completely routine revenge script that speaks to the insanity of dog nation, here justifying scores of bullet strewn bodies as retaliation for the death of one pup.
** out of ****

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

Salesman

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

Anomalisa

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

Joy

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

Bananas

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: http://time.com/4178963/oscar-nominations-2016/

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 ****