Brazillian Ayrton Senna was a humble Formula One Race Driver who conquered his arena and died tragically in a horrific accident in 1994. Senna presents a portrait of a morose, thoughtful superstar athlete, much different from the kinds we're accustomed to today. It achieves the great feat of presenting a documentary consisting entirely of footage, devoid of lame talking heads expousing their worthless opinions. It does somewhat lose pole position somewhere towards the end but the documentary is a wonder in its own way and it is kind of a shame that Formula One Racing still doesn't have nonfans convinced on merits of its sport.
Saturday, April 26, 2014
A crack peddler (Mekhi Phifer) operating out of a Brooklyn Housing Project no longer has the stomach for the life but is torn due to loyalty towards the menacing drug lord/father father (Delroy Lindo) who oversees his operation. When he becomes a suspect in a murder investigation that also targets his straight laced brother (Isaiah Washington), he doesn't know whether to trust the homicide detective (Harvey Keitel) who seems to show a genuine concern for his well being. From a novel and screenplay by Richard Price, Spike Lee's Clockers is an intelligent, rollicking, thought provoking film which unravels just slightly towards the end but is still a full blooded original (which makes you question its absence from recent movie conversations). Phifer throws himself into the lead role, which makes it excusable when he occasionally struggles to hit the right notes, Keitel turns in one of his finest performances and Lindo is potent and absolutely petrifying in a great turn.
Friday, April 25, 2014
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
The Parallax View, All the President's Men). Fonda is assuredly powerful and sexy and Sutherland makes a nice counter as her introverted partner.
Monday, April 21, 2014
Sunday, April 20, 2014
Jesus (Victor Garber), John the Baptist (David Haskell), and a nearly complete assemblage of Apostles assume the form of flower children and reinterpret the parables of St. Matthew's Gospel while frolicking around New York City. The film adaptation of Stephen Schwartz's lively and unbounded musical, which was based on a book by John-Michael Tebelak, is about as cheesed out and phony as it gets while carrying very little resonance with only Schwartz's remarkable songs keeping the film afloat. Having recently watched a filmed version of Pippin, another Schwartz scribed musical with a similar structure, it seems like the material is best suited to the stage. Then again, I've seen Godspell put on by a few amateur troupes, and the only thing that has ever stuck is the music. Another film that came to mind while suffering through a lengthy, insufferable nonmusical interlude was Yellow Submarine, where again I found my resisting the urge to reach for the fast forward button to skip the dippy filler material and return to the fantastic songs.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
A frigid advertising executive (Rachel McAdams) manipulates her talented assistant (Noomi Rapace) both professionally and sexually before finally stealing her business proposal, an act of betrayal that sets the pair on a bizarre and homicidal trail. Brian De Palma's Passion, which was based on the 2010 French film Love Crime and shares a kinship with Dressed to Kill, Body Double, and some of his other thrillers he made around that time, features a sleekness and an overexaggerated McAdams performance which grates for awhile, then really services the picture before a twist happy ending derails any gradually generated goodwill. Rapace is excellent, which has really been par for the course for her up to this point.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
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
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
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
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, 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
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
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
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
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.