Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Harlan County U.S.A.

Barbara Kopple’s film profiling a miner’s strike in Eastern Kentucky, an area of the country with a violent labor history, documents the harsh realities and becomes intimate with the impoverished, impassioned residents. The documentary makes fantastic use of local protest music and contains many memorable moments including life on the picket lines, a sheriff paying a visit in order to have an obstructing vehicle moved, a conversation between a miner and a New York City police officer, and the graphic return to the scene where a young man was shot and killed by company thugs.
*** ½ out of ****

Monday, December 11, 2017

Die Another Day

After being captured during a North Korean mission, 007 (Pierce Brosnan) is held in a prison camp for 14 months until traded for a terrorist with a diamond encrusted face (Rick Yune) and released. Now targeting his counterpart, he allies himself with a beautiful American agent (Halle Berry) and also sets his sights on a diamond merchant (Toby Stephens) who has funded a satellite with Earth destroying implications. Brosnan’s final Bond outing is also his worst, a dull, special effects heavy, and ludicrous (even by series standards) entry with forgettable villains and gorgeous Bond girls Berry and Rosamund Pike bringing little else to the proceedings.
** out of ****

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Scoop

A somewhat dippy, aspiring journalist (Scarlett Johansson) is picked out of the crowd of a hokey magician's (Woody Allen) London act to enter his mysterious vanishing chamber. Inside, a recently deceased newsman (Ian McShane) relays a tip he picked up in the afterlife: a respected socialite (Hugh Jackman) may in fact be the Tarot Card Killer preying upon the city's prostitutes. Allen has been down very similar terrain before (see Manhattan Murder Mystery and Shadows and Fog) and other over familiar elements are present as well but its still amiable fun with great cinematography showing off the city.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Departures

With his Tokyo symphony closing a young man (Masahiro Motoki) is forced to sell his cello, return home with his doting wife (Ryoko Hirosue), and find work. After answering a misleading want ad, he finds undesirable work that gives him great meaning in encoffinment, that is delicately and tenderly preparing corpses in a showing before cremation. Oscar winning Japanese foreign film is calculated with forced, unearned emotion but not without depth and a conclusion that is admittedly moving. The main actor is cartoonish but is surrounded by talented supporters.
*** out of ****

Friday, December 8, 2017

Shadow of a Doubt

With the police closing in on him, the Merry Widow Murderer (Joseph Cotten) travels cross country to his family home in Santa Rosa, California and the company of his adoring niece (Teresa Wright) who slowly begins to unravel the unsavory truth about her cagey and mysterious uncle. Alfred Hitchcock’s self-proclaimed favorite film is an ingeniously crafted, creatively detailed, and slyly subversive work with Wright assuredly carrying the film, Cotton making a sinister villain, and Hume Cronyn hysterically funny in his film debut as the next door neighbor with a predilection for the macabre.
**** out of ****

Thursday, December 7, 2017

High and Low

After just having secured the funds for a takeover of his shoe company, a businessman (Toshiro Mifune) is torn at having to pay the ransom when his son is kidnapped from their hilltop mansion. Matters become even more cloudy when it comes to light that his chauffer’s son and not his own has been taken, and the local police department launches a major dragnet in order to trap the killer. Kurosawa’s High and Low, from an American crime novel by Ed McBain is a measured, sporadically captivating police procedural, unsurprisingly incredibly photographed with Mifune unfortunately ultimately relegated to a minor role.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Melinda and Melinda

While out to dinner with friends, two playwrights (one the author of comedies, the other tragedies) are presented with the scenario of a woman with a troubled past who shows up unexpectedly at her friend’s doorstep and each begins to weave their own version of the story, comically or tragically respectively. Great concept by Woody Allen doesn't exactly come off and perhaps would have worked better told as two separate stories standing alone. Allen has done the tragiocomic thing before at.a masterful level but this is still amiable enough. Radha Mitchell succeeds with a tough charge in playing the lead in both tellings and Will Ferrell, tasked with taking on the Woody persona, gets a mixed bag of hilarious and throwaway one-liners.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Superman II

General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his cronies are freed from their free floating two-dimensional glass prison when Superman (Christopher Reeve) releases a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere meant for the residents of Paris. Realizing they would possess Godlike powers on Earth, the trio descends on the planet in order to rule and form a tenuous alliance with criminal mastermind Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) who has just escaped from prison. Meanwhile, after Lois (Margot Kidder) puts two and two together , Clark contemplates devoting his life to her and giving up his superhuman persona permanently. After replacing Richard Donner at the helm, who had shot a good chunk of the movie and decades later released his own version of the film, Richard Lester’s follow-up is not as complete as its predecessor  but still a lot of fun with a very silly/hokey, romantic, and action packed treatment.

*** out of ****

Monday, December 4, 2017

Blow Out

A Philadelphia sound technician (John Travolta) for third-rate schlock films is out one evening recording effects and captures on tape what he believes to be a political assassination, thereafter becoming involved with a would be victim and delving deeper and deeper into the cover-up. Using Antonioni’s Blow-Up as a springboard, Brian De Palma keeps plagiarism and sleaze to a minimum in Blow Out and crafts a meticulous and enthralling thriller in what is effectively his masterpiece. Excellent early Travolta performance.
**** out of ****

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The World is Not Enough

After her father is murdered by a psychotic villain with a lodged bullet in the brain constantly empowering his senses (Robert Carlyle), an oil pipeline heiress (Sophie Marceau) is tasked to 007 (Pierce Brosnan) who allies himself with a beautiful short shorts wearing nuclear physicist (Denise Richards). Michael Apted's treatment of the The World is Not Enough is another excellent outing for Brosnan, contains an exciting opening and close and the one-liners at their best, but is still marred by overlength. Carlyle has the makings for a better villain and still should have made one, Marceau is supremely sexy and a superb Bond girl, and Richards is an insufferable joke playing a scientist.
*** out of ****

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Anything Else

A young comedian (Jason Biggs) with a fledgling career and a guilt complex that prevents him from ditching his useless analyst and loser agent (Danny DeVito) takes up with a high maintenance wreck of a woman (Christina Ricci) while taking advice from a deranged teacher and fellow struggling comedian (Woody Allen). Allen's rambling and aimless Anything Else is moderately involving with Biggs making a fair Woody stand-in, Ricci is extremely grating, and Allen himself stealing the show and making the movie.
*** out of ****

Friday, December 1, 2017

Heavenly Creatures

Based on a true story, in early 1950s New Zealand two teenagers (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet) form an unhealthy, magnetically drawn relationship where they construct a mutually shared fantasy world which culminates in the stoning death of one of their mothers. Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures is a seriously funny and fantastical film in light of the more serious, delicate, and morbid matters at hand, all of which would not have worked if not for the adept performances of Lynskey and Winslet, the latter making her big screen debut.
*** ½ out of ****

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Last Flag Flying

A morose man (Steve Carell) looks up two of his old Vietnam buddies (Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne) and asks their assistance to help in making funeral preparations for his only son who has just been killed in the early days of the 2nd Iraq War. Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying, who worked with writer Darryl Ponicsan, is a thoughtful, meditative, and even novelistic discourse that is made in the same vein, and almost functions as a quasi sequel of sorts, as Ponicsan's The Last Detail. Though their performances are not without their qualities, Carrel and Fishburne devolve into their usual personas but Cranston's turn, though heavily influence by Nicholson's, actually grows and takes on life as the film progresses.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Seconds

A successful banker with a boring wife living a monotonous suburban existence is recruited into a mandatory program where he will be reconfigured as an attractive, artistic type (Rock Hudson) and placed in a California coastal community with like people. John Frankenheimer's Seconds plays like an extended version of a Twilight Zone episode, never dull but still sterilized, shocking and hard to watch. It drives home its theme well though with a solid performance by Hudson who is himself surrounded by strong supporters, and is intriguingly filmed with great camerawork and use of closeup by James Wong Howe.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

After proving a danger to the son he was supposed to replace, a cyborg (Haley Joel Osment), is cast out in the wilderness by the mother he was programmed to love and desperately seeks The Blue Fairy he learned of in Pinocchio lore in order to transform him into a real boy. Steven Spielberg's working of material developed by Stanley Kubrick is light sci-fi with an incomplete feel, often fascinating and always watchable while still arriving in an unsatisfying place. Some of this material seams ideally suited to the director and other, more darker parts of the story just don't. Osment is rightly cast and William Hurt is excellent as the Geppetto cipher.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, November 27, 2017

Wonder

After spending most of his young life in home schooling, a boy (Jacob Tremblay) with severe facial deformities adjusts to life in middle school while his overprotective parents (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson) cope with his traumatizing trials, and his overlooked sister (Izabela Vidovic) undergoes her own rites of initiation at her private city school. Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of R.J. Palacio's bestselling novel is appealing, well-conceived, and likely to please but (expectedly) overly and cheaply sentimental.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, November 24, 2017

Lady Bird

A headstrong Sacramento high school student (Saoirse Ronan) butts heads with her forthright mother (Laurie Metcalf) while dreaming of being accepted at an out of state school while going through the highs and lows of senior year at her Catholic school. Greta Gerwig's ostensibly autobiographical Lady Bird is a run of the mill coming of age story that knows its territory and contains a few lovely moments. Ronan again brings her special presence (even if this performance is somewhat unexceptional) and Metcalf is noteworthy in support.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

On a mostly unused road just outside of a small Missouri town, an angry, grieving mother (Frances McDormand) erects three billboards chastising the local police department for not apprehending the rapist who murdered her daughter a year prior, which leads to backlash from the town, its terminally ill police chief (Woody Harrelson) and an overzealous, half witted deputy (Sam Rockwell). Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards is an unsubtle black comedy journey into misery imperfectly but profoundly meshed with dramatic elements, with resolutions that buck Hollywood cliches and are uneasily arrived. McDormand is superb in one of those roles she has mastered: imbuing grief, anger, humor, and humanity, and Harrelson and Rockwell are excellent in support, both creating three dimensional characters while providing comic relief.
**** out of ****

Monday, November 20, 2017

Personal Shopper

An American personal secretary (Kristen Stewart) to a demanding Parisian debutante attempts to channel the spirit of her recently deceased twin brother while being digitally stalked by what may or may not be an otherworldly presence. Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper is both an eerie ghost story and sincere character study featuring a commanding performance from Stewart, which is able to succeed in being ambiguous while also carrying meaning.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Called to London for a major case and desperately seeking rest, exacting and world famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) becomes involved in a murder mystery when the Orient Express becomes snowbound and derailed, a world class heel (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin in the middle of the night, and all twelve of the car's passengers turn suspect. Director Branagh's sleepy, mostly unnecessary Agatha Christie remake with a star studded cast (also including Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, and Daisy Ridley) bringing little to the table resembles something that belongs moreso to Masterpiece Theatre than the big screen. Branagh's Poirot is strong and emotive and stands alongside Peter Ustinov and Albert Finney.
** 1/2 out of ****

An Autumn Afternoon

After a series of often drunken encounters with old friends, mentors, and subordinates, a middle-aged businessman (Chishu Ryu) decides he should marry off his daughter (Shima Iwashita) rather than selfishly letting her take care of him and become an old maid in the process. Ozu's final film, made with the same delicate touch and mise-en-scene that predominated the rest of his body of work, is both moving and bittersweet while at the same time lighthearted and humorous. Longtime Ozu collaborator Ryu is wonderful in the lead.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Tomorrow Never Dies

007 (Pierce Brosnan), with the aid of a Chinese agent (Michelle Yeoh), is summoned to thwart a media mogul (Jonathan Pryce) who generates the news in order to corner the market, currently plotting to instigate war between China and Britain. Tomorrow Never Dies is another solid Bond entry, with Brosnan effectively settled into the role, that is marred once more by overlength and redundant action sequences (although one involving a remote control automobile is outstanding). Pryce is a solid, somewhat offbeat villain and, as for the women, Teri Hatcher makes a too brief appearance and Yeoh is strong as an action star.
*** out of ****

Friday, November 17, 2017

Superman: The Movie

The story of Kal-El, exiled by his father (Marlon Brando) and sent to Earth as an infant in the face of his planet's mass destruction. Adopted and raised in rural Iowa, he grows up to be mild manner reporter Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) by day, who is continually thwarted by flighty Daily Planet colleague Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and Superman by night, a near invincible being who fights for truth, justice, and the American way and is currently combating megalomaniacal criminal mastermind Lex Luther (Gene Hackman) who plans to hatch a nuclear attack to affect a major real estate scheme. Richard Donner's Superman is the kind of movie that Hollywood isn't even capable of attempting anymore, just great, well rounded entertainment. Reeve and Kidder bring great presence and chemistry to the picture and the entire cast pulls off great comic performances from a tongue-in-cheek script which was surprisingly co-authored by Godfather scribe Mario Puzo. Hackman delivers one of the great villainous turns (some of his interactions with Ned Beatty are priceless) and the cheesy f/x (which were heralded at the time) actually enhance the likability of the picture.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream

The story of how, after meeting Elvis at a young age and later seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, Tom Petty became singularly focused on rock 'n' roll, and formed the band Mudcrutch who played throughout the Gainesville, Florida circuit. Driving 3,000 miles to Hollywood, they shopped their demo, scored a record contract, changed their name to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and became a staple headliner for over 30 years of ups and downs. Peter Bogdanovich's Runnin' Down a Dream is an excessively long and rife for parody documentary, almost cheaply and lazily made by mostly editing in concert and music video footage with current interviews. It is still watchable and never boring, while continuously featuring great music and background to an inimitable singer/songwriter.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Le Deuxieme Souffle

A principled criminal (Lino Ventura) escapes from prison, returns to Paris, and reacquaints with old friends before being roped back into the life, taking part in an execution and a deadly heist while being pursued by a wily detective (Paul Meurisse). Harsh and violent, Jean-Pierre Melville's undemonstrative Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Wind) is another of the director's takes on gangster ethics and boasting a strong performance from Ventura.
*** 1/2 out of ****