Sunday, March 29, 2015

Julia

Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda), struggling with her new play and living in a beach house with lover and mentor Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), is contacted through intermediaries by an eponymous childhood friend (Vanessa Redgrave) who urges her to smuggle much needed funds into Berlin by train to assist the underground war effort. Fred Zinnemann's Julia, adapted by Alvin Sargent from Hellman's own story, suffers from an identity crisis which mars the film even in its second half when the intrigue begins to pick up. For such a strong actress, Fonda reaches here and Redgrave (an Oscar recipient for her role) is excellent though she hardly has a character to work with. For me, aside from great photography, some competent yet occasionally ponderous direction, and a brief appearance by Maximilian Schell, Robards (another Oscar winner) is the reason for the movie and I often found myself hoping that the story would return to him.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, March 27, 2015

Page One: Inside the New York Times

Using the death of print media in the modern technological era as a springboard, Page One is not so much a window to operation of the revered and usually cloistered 164 year old publication, but a look at its recent history through the eyes of an array of its reporters and editors. Including a war correspondent, a newly appointed editor, a much hated social media expert, and David Carr (pictured above), a memorable and abrasive reformed drug addict and recently deceased columnist, all of whom guide us through such stories as the Judith Miller and Jayson Blair controversies, their involvement with WikiLeaks, the coverage of the Iraq War, the race to keep up with social media and news aggregators, and the decline in quality and general collapse of the newspaper industry.
*** out of ****

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Manhattan

A television writer (Woody Allen) currently romancing a 17-year-old (Mariel Hemingway), frustrated with the inanity of his line of work, and whose ex-wife (Meryl Streep) left him for another woman, falls for his best friend's mistress (Diane Keaton). Allen's love letter to his city is humorous, deep, and distinctive, a film that lets you step outside yourself and into a another world, perhaps one that is miles away from your own, yet still containing characters with which you identify. It features Gordon Willis' beautiful black and white photography, and Allen's spectacular performance, something not commonly commented on in his movies, although his character's central relationship with a high school aged girl is disturbingly treated with levity or disregard.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony

The story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, their friendship, and tireless, decades long struggle for women's suffrage, an objective neither would see come to fruition in their lifetimes. Ken Burns' Not for Ourselves Alone is expectedly informative and well researched, but is somewhat plodding and slightly marred by the documentarian's signature, unchanging style, although some beautiful live action photography helps. The high points of the film are the assumedly unabridged speeches, especially a charged debate between Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Do the Right Thing

On the hottest day of the year, racial tensions boil over in the predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with Sal's, the Italian owned pizzeria, serving as the epicenter of the conflagration. Spike Lee's heralded and controversial film is thought provoking, generally well made, self-indulgent, and with its exaggerated performances and hyper-stylized treatment, had probably dated the day after its release. It features Ernest Dickerson's excellent photography and fine performances from Danny Aiello and Ossie Davis. With Do the Right Thing, there are so many conflicting ideologies on hand and Lee and many of his supporters would have you believe he paints a completely fair and honest picture, but I can't see how its deliberately inflammatory finale, which has divided audiences to this day, can be seen as anything besides a call to violence, and senseless violence at that.
*** out of ****

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Running on Empty

A couple (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) once involved in the bombing of a government weapon's facility remain political fugitives from justice with their two sons in tow. As the elder of the boys (River Phoenix) approaches adulthood, he seeks to break free from their nomadic, surreptitious lifestyle and strike out a normal life of his own. Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty is an assuredly made and somewhat fantastical film with Hirsch and Martha Plimpton incredibly irritating in key roles, Lahti offering a few glimmering moments, and Phoenix phenomenal in a standout performance, with the film working best when the story focuses on him.
*** out of ****

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Conversation

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the preeminent West Coast wiretapper bar none, with not a San Francisco verbal exchange privileged thanks to his state of the art gadgetry and brilliant methods. His personal life, however, is a lonely, unguarded, and vulnerable state of paranoia. When he is hired to surveil a young couple by the chairman of a powerful corporation, he finds himself entwined in an obscure murder plot and his private life begins to unravel as his conscience gradually gets the better of him. A somewhat diminished thread in an unprecedented string of classic films of the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation is a tense, intelligent thriller that takes its time while functioning as a character study, all leading to a haunting resounding payoff, with Hackman unforgettable in a career defining performance.  
**** out of ****

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Complete Works of Jean Vigo

Jean Vigo was a surrealist French director whose life was cut short by tuberculosis at 29, but whose limited body of work (consisting of only four films, one of which was feature length) not only provided a window of what could have been and served as a major influence for the future of world cinema, but stands quite sturdily, in their own offbeat and lightly poetic way. His debut film was A Propos de Nice, a fascinating documentary covering all walks of life in Nice and was probably inspired by the landmark Man with a Movie Camera. It was followed by Taris, a brilliant and innovative instructional film featuring the eponymous swim champion, which was succeeded by Zero for Conduct, a whimsical tale detailing a boarding school rebellion. L'Atalante, his final and most cited and cherished work, tells a breezy and aimless story about newlyweds travelling upriver with a gruff riverboat captain, and features amusing situations, likable performances, and some great cinematography.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Barcelona

A supercilious American (Taylor Nichols) working for a Chicago sales firm in the title locale finds his life disrupted by an uncouth cousin (Chris Eigeman), a sailor on an overseas assignment. Like all of Whit Stillman's films, Barcelona is talky, intelligent, funny, haughty, and occasionally too light. As in Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, Eigeman is a particular standout in a talented cast, which here also includes Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen who play romantic conquests of the two male leads.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Persona

A nurse (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to care for an actress (Liv Ullmann)  who suffered a breakdown and has ceased speaking entirely. The two women retreat to a seaside cottage in hopes the tranquil settings will help in the form of therapy and quickly form a powerful bond and find their personages beginning to fuse together. Ingmar Bergman's is challenging, quintessential art house fare that I'd be damned to offer any meaningful analysis on. It is dark, beautiful, hypnotic, haunting, and cryptic, filled with jarring imagery and containing excellent performances from its female leads.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Bank Dick

When no account lush Egbert Souse (W.C. Fields) unwittingly stops a robber dead in his tracks, he becomes a local hero, and the would be victimized bank offers him a full time gig as security guard. Soon he is involved in a shady land deal involving ill-gotten bank funds, directing his own movie, and all sorts of other drunken shenanigans. The Bank Dick is an uproarious clamor of jokes, one-liners, outrageous situational comedy, and perfectly timed pratfalls, all with the inimitable Fields at the helm and backed-up by a wonderfully cast team of supporters.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, March 16, 2015

Alfie

Alfie Elkins is a Cockneyed cad and a self-styled womanizer who cares nothing for the young women with whom he engages his nightly dalliances. When his lifestyle begins to catch up with him, in the form of poor health, a newborn son, and the arrangement of an abortion for the wife of a close friend, he starts to make strides at emotional maturity. Alfie is something of an astoundment: a sex comedy that doesn't insult its audience's intelligence and lets them use their imagination. Lewis Gilbert's treatment of Bill Naughton's scripting of his own play would surely have failed in other hands but Michael Caine, in his first starring role, makes it funny, compelling, and moving and even succeeds in breaking the fourth wall.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, March 13, 2015

Ran

An aged, powerful warrior in feudal Japan plans to retire and divide his kingdom equally among his three sons. When the youngest of the three questions his proposal, he finds himself banished and his doubts soon proving prophetic as a rift develops between the two elder siblings who prepare for battle and witness the toppling of the vast kingdom their father strived so hard to secure. Made in his mid-70s, legendary master Akira Kurosawa's Ran is an epic, full-blooded, dynamic take on King Lear filled with fantastic cinematography, incredible battle sequences, and gripping subplots. Tatsuya Nakadi is mesmerizing as the old warlord.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Beat the Devil

A disparate band of villains, swindlers and thieves travels from Italy to Africa in search of uranium mines as part of a get rich quick scheme but only find mischief and international intrigue. John Huston's Beat the Devil, supposedly written on the fly by Truman Capote, is a not so serious B-picture containing a few hearty chuckles, a memorable cast (including Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Peter Lorre), and a hilarious denouement in the form of an interrogation.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Downhill Racer

A cold, insensitive, self-minded skier (Robert Redford) travels to Switzerland and joins the American squad and their hard-edged coach (Gene Hackman) as an injury replacement. Soon, through skill and dubious, unscrupulous methods, he glides his way to Olympic glory. Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer is a relevant as ever treatise on bloodthirsty competition which strives for verite like realism (I liked how Hackman would flub a word or two during a heated argument or a hand would graze the camera lens during a crash sequence) but keeps its story in the background somewhat. Redford's role is a significant departure for his typically moralistic leading roles and his character's quiet, unabashed narcissism is quite jolting. Hackman is excellent is a supporting role and the film also boasts incredible photography and ski sequences which literally caused my heart to skip a beat during every wipeout.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Right Stuff

The walls of a watering hole at a Californian airbase that attracts the nation's best test pilots are adorned with the photos of the men who lost their lives seeking glory in the sky. Visiting the bar are government men seeking airmen to break the sound barrier, although their offers are roundly rejected, being too low for such a hazardous proposition. Taking them up is the stoic war hero Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) who sets the record in dazzling fashion but finds himself left in the dust when, in an effort to keep up with the Russians, the U.S. seeks out flyboys with the titular panache to lead the Mercury program as the country's first astronauts. Adapted for the screen by Philip Kaufman from Tom Wolfe's nonfiction novel, The Right Stuff is perhaps one of the funnest (and funniest) epics ever conceived. With the incredible contrast between Shepard's foreboding, almost mystical desert scenes, the jaunty antics of the training and publicity sequences of the Mercury crew, and the harrowing flight scenes, it is a supreme form of storytelling consisting of countless memorable scenes (my favorite being the incredibly moving standoff between LBJ and Mrs. John Glenn). Shepherd stands at the film's center in an assured, unforgettable performance and those comprising the Mercury squad, including Ed Harris as John Glenn, and Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward in particularly funny roles, are also tremendous.
**** out of ****

Monday, March 9, 2015

Long Day's Journey Into Night

The dysfunctional Tyrone family, consisting of a penny pinching, alcoholic father (Ralph Richardson), a morphine addicted, unstable mother (Katharine Hepburn), an angry, bitter, and also alcoholic older brother (Jason Robards), and a fragile, tubercular younger brother (Dean Stockwell), gather for a summer afternoon at their Connecticut ocean home as festering resentments and blame come swelling to the service. Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical play is both challenging and somewhat redundant but is opened up for the screen quite well by Sidney Lumet who gives it a thorough and unabridged treatment and presents a cast that is roundly excellent.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, March 6, 2015

Network

When longstanding TV news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) learns from his producer/best friend (William Holden) that he will be replaced at his post due to sagging ratings, he announces on live television that he will commit suicide during an upcoming broadcast and goes on a tirade on the state of the industry and the state of affairs in general. With ratings at an all-time high, the studio turns the crisis into an opportunity and seeks to promote "The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves." Sidney Lumet's masterful indictment of both the morally bankrupt and boundless television news industry and the audiences who soak it up is an illustrious production firing on all cylinders beginning with a brilliant, caustic, satirical, and shockingly prescient (as most viewers will point out) Paddy Chayefsky screenplay. The story centers around Finch's mad, showy, dazzling, Oscar winning performance but Holden's worn and weary news producer captures the heart of the film. Additionally, Faye Dunaway (also an Oscar winner) as the soulless, ladder climbing executive, Robert Duvall as the ruthless axeman, the jilted, sobering Beatrice Straight (who took home yet another acting trophy), and Ned Beatty as the bizarre, evangelistic corporate chairman round out the uniformly excellent cast.
**** out of ****

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a baffling and dreamlike film (with a plot that defies explanation) in which, like the equally inscrutable The Exterminating Angel, the act of dining figures prominently and proves problematic for a group of upper crusters. Despite its nature, the film never ceases to be involving (maybe partially due to its incomprehensibility) and features exquisite photography by Edmond Richmond.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Duck Soup

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is named supreme leader over the fictional land of Freedonia at the behest of heiress Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) over whose honor he declares war on adjoining Sylvania. In the meantime, the head of this rival nation has hired two bumbling spies (Chico and Harpo Marx) to keep tabs on their enemy's new leader. The Marx Brothers' classic melange is not so much a movie as a nonstop assault of gags, one-liners, one-upsmanship, and putdowns. In short, hilarious irreverence. Directed by Leo McCrarey, best known for more say respectable fare (Going My Way, An Affair to Remember), it features memorable sequence after memorable sequence (the mirror gag seemingly stands out for most) with each brother in top form.
**** out of ****

Friday, February 27, 2015

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare's enduring tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers from rival families in fair Verona is given grand treatment in this sumptuous adaptation by Franco Zeffirelli who casts like aged teens Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, who are surprisingly appealing and quite excellent, and matched by resplendent, Oscar winning cinematography by Pasqualino De Santis and a lovely Nino Rota score. Also, the courtyard scene is unforgettable.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Deathtrap

A once great playwright (Michael Caine) is nursing his latest Broadway flop when he receives a script in the mail from an admirer and aspiring writer (Christopher Reeve) who hopes his idol will have the time to glance it over. In a flash of diabolical inspiration, he invites his devotee over in a plot to knock him off and present his play as his own. Working with screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Ira Levin's twisty, popular stage production opens up well (perhaps too well) on the screen with a delicious first act followed by a belabored second. Caine, Reeve, and Dyan Cannon are all on point.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 Oscar Afterthoughts

In recent years it has become almost standard that Oscar will play it safe and this year Neil Patrick Harris proved no exception as host with his toothless, stale humor and uninspired opening musical act (only given life by a huge assist from Jack Black (the ones you want to host the show never do)) aimed at a likewise colorless generation who somehow find this smarmy twerp to be one of the industry's grandest entertainers. Otherwise, the rest of the production offered very few laughs (I did appreciate NPH's Birdman spoof) and unfortunately consisted mostly of musical performances, with the crowd's reaction to John Legend and Common's Selma number being a nauseating low point of the evening, and the odd and overlong Lady Gaga Sound of Music rendering only redeemed by the appearance of Julie Andrews. As per the awards, there were few surprises, excepting a few major ones which unfortunately favored the overlauded and self-important Birdman. J.K. Simmons, in a deserving win for Best Supporting Actor, had the speech of the night: succinct, funny, and tender though not cloying. Patricia Arquette, another meritorious supporting winner, offered the worst speech who for some reason chose the occasion to use the Oscar podium as a platform for equal wages for women, as she dispassionately read her lecture from notecards. Julianne Moore won an overdue Oscar for an unworthy role and Eddie Redmayne, the least deserving contestant in his field, took home the trophy because he was the only nominee who played a physically handicapped person. I had issues with every Oscar Birdman, the big winner of the night, took home starting with the Cinematography trophy for back to back recipient Emmanuel Lubezki. The simulated continual tracking shot seems more like an editing feat (a category in which it wasn't even nominated) and the rest of the bland photography pales in comparison to like nominated films such as Mr. Turner, Ida, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Lastly, the greatest disappointment of the evening had to be the favorite Boyhood losing steam as it reached the finish line. Though the Academy voted differently, down the line I believe Richard Linklater's 12 year labor of love will be looked back upon as the finest achievement of 2014.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The French Connection

During a routine drug bust, NYPD narcotics officers Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) learn that 32 million dollars worth of heroin has been smuggled over from France and begin the laborious, frustrating, and deadly search for the shipment and its source. Whether its a barroom bust-up, a sleepy stakeout, or the ultimate elevated train chase sequence, William Friedkin's gritty, exciting, and quintessential action picture elevates itself above the rest mainly due to the way it treats its audience like adults and not feeble minded idiots. Hackman provides a tough, uncompromising, unlikable, and atypical leading man and Scheider is equally compelling as his partner.
**** out of ****

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Shane

A disentranced gunfighter ambles into the Wyoming homestead of a floundering rancher and his wife in the hopes of starting a new life, and is immediately idolized by the couple's young child. Though eventually trusted by the family and desperately heeding to their advice to avoid the ever beckoning calls of his past life, fate draws him into a showdown with the ruthless cattle baron who has been preying upon his new keepers' land. George Stevens' classic Western standard, from the book by Jack Schaefer, is a perfectly satisfying (and realized) example of hokey Americana. Loyal Griggs' awe inspiring cinematography dominates the proceedings and each and every player, including Alan Ladd as the weary gunslinger, Brandon de Wilde as his young devotee, Van Heflin playing the struggling rancher, Jean Arthur his wife, Ben Johnson as a despicable thug, and Jack Palance as the vile black hat, are cast and play their roles to a T.
**** out of ****