Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mr. Arkadin

The words of a dying man lead a shifty American (Robert Arden) to a peculiar European millionaire (Orson Welles) who hires him to investigate his hazy past. Like many of Welles' films, Mr. Arkadin (also know as Confidential Report) was assembled into several different versions. I elected to watch the comprehensive edition on a recent Criterion treatment, the distributor's suggested version and, despite some bad dubbing and rugged cutting, the best as far as I could tell. Arkadin also bears similarity in plotting, in large ways and small, to its auteur's other films: a flashback structure with the protagonist learning the truth about a secretive billionaire (Citizen Kane), a postwar European set black market story (The Third Man), and even the late appearance of assured Katina Paxinou reminded me of Marlene Dietrich's cameo in Touch of Evil. However, despite the similarities to these classics, Mr. Arkadin isn't plotted nearly as well and Arden is dreadful in the lead, but the film features some fine camerawork and Welles is a lot of fun in the title role.
** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

Glacier National Park, Montana
Beginning with John Muir's dream of seeing his beloved Yosemite protected, continuing with Theodore Roosevelt's follow through using presidential action to preserve pristine natural monuments around the country, and concluding with controversial decisions to protect vast amounts of Alaskan wilderness in the 1970s, while covering a multitudinous number of stories from many of our 59 federally protected parks in the years in between, The National Parks is another ambitious, informative, and patriotic work from documentarian Ken Burns. As most of Burns' films on extensive topics have a habit of doing, The National Parks produces a "star" here in the form of Shelton Johnson, an eloquent Yosemite Park Ranger from humble beginnings on the urban landscape of Detroit. Aside from Shelton, however, the talking heads are surprisingly lackluster, perhaps because there's only so much to be said about the majesty of these wonders that already speak for themselves, especially when you've had the privilege to have seen some of them in person.  Nonetheless the historical aspects and footage are excellent, which is par for the course in a Burns' film, and despite a few plodding middle episodes, the opening and concluding segments are astounding.
*** out of ****

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

A dull teacher (Peter O'Toole) finds unexpected love with a chorus girl (Petula Clark) while on vacation in the Greek isles and returns with a new attitude to his all boys British preparatory school where he was once the scourge of his students. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the second screen adaptation of James Hilton's novel, and although O'Toole is superb and Clark is sweet, this simple story is so overblown and compounded by a needless and saccharine musical treatment.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

How to Steal a Million

The daughter of an art forger (Audrey Hepburn) resolves to steal her father's product, a replica statue of Cellini's Venus on display at a renowned Paris gallery, in order to protect his reputation when he fears analysis will out him as a fraud. To achieve her goal, she enlists the help of police detective posing as a burglar (Peter O'Toole) who can't help but fall for his lovely target. William Wyler's How to Steal a Million is an incredulous and uninspired romantic comedy invigorated by the aid of its charismatic stars and an entertaining heist sequence.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Matewan

When the coal miners of a small West Virginia town decide to strike, union forces and the mining company come to an explosive and violent head in this patchwork recreation of real life events from 1920. John Sayles' Matewan is a thoughtful, powerful, meditative, and humanistic pro-labor portrait enhanced even further by the stunning Haskell Wexler photography and a profusion of supporting performances, headlined by Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and James Earl Jones.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Blues

The Blues is an seven part series presented by several accomplished filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Charles Burnett, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood who document the distinct American art form from its origins in West Africa which made its way through the slave trade to the Mississippi Delta and continuing right up until the present day. Each episode takes a different approach on the same subject, which tends to grow redundant as the series progresses, but is worth watching for its wealth of performances which range from B.B. King, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Dr. John, and Van Morrison in addition to the amazing archival footage. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Trouble with Harry

Several members of a scenic Vermont town stumble upon a corpse in the woods, each with different motives and suggestions for disposing of it. The Trouble with Harry is light and playful, and isn't exactly what you'd expect from an Alfred Hitchcock film. However while many of his classic offerings tap into his fears and obsessions, perhaps this work is the one most attuned to his playful, mischievous personality. It also features bucolic Vermont location shooting and fun early performances from a young Shirley MacLaine and Edmund Gwenn of Miracle on 34th Street fame. While the wrap-up is a little too neat and satisfying, there are many sincere laughs to be had throughout the rest of its duration.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Basic Instinct

Several murders in the San Francisco area follow the same pattern as the killings in the erotic novels of a  steamy blonde author (Sharon Stone) who lures a police detective (Michael Douglas) on the case who may be in way too deep for his own good. Basic Instinct is a sleek, often dumb, occasionally intelligent thriller whose many sex scenes are as often unappealing as they are provocative. Stone delivers a soundly confident performance, Douglas' is a mixed bag as he seems to struggle with the heated scenes, and every story angle or scene spotlighting Jeanne Tripplehorn is completely awful. Paul Verhoeven's film attempts to channel classic San Fran movies such as Vertigo and Bullitt, and does so successfully, and then offers a conclusion that is supposed to end things on an ambiguous note, that comes off as more idiotic than anything.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Crimes and Misdemeanors

An esteemed ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) is thrust into a crisis when his needy mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to expose their affair to his loving wife, an act of desperation that pushes him to his moral brink. In separate developments, a struggling documentarian (Woody Allen) takes on much needed work from his insufferable, far more successful brother-in-law (Alan Alda) who gradually steals away his editor and girl of his dreams (Mia Farrow). With Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen offers not one but two great movies, one tragic and thought provoking, the other highly comedic, which despite a partially intersecting finale, do not exist solely and stupidly for the sake of one another as in many similarly plotted modern movies. Landau has the role of a lifetime and Allen and Alda are absolutely hysterical as bitter rivals.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Red River

While dreaming of owning a booming cattle ranch with his cantankerous right hand man (Walter Brennan), a seasoned and insistent cowherder (John Wayne) takes in a young boy (played as an adult by Montgomery Clift) whose wagon party has been slaughtered by Indians. As time passes and the cowboy's dream has been fulfilled, he sees to drive his massive heard on an onerous trek through South Texas to get top dollar for his stock and finds opposition from his protege when his methods are viewed as no less than dictatorial. Howard Hawks' dark and ambitious western features excellent performances from Wayne (extremely brooding) and Clift and two extraordinary montage sequences in his study of commanding respect versus demanding it. The Joanne Dru character, who is tackily introduced to resolve the central conflict, does not hamper an otherwise superiorly made classic.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chinatown

1930s L.A. private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is drawn into a routine and seemingly simple case of adultery involving the director of the water department and his steamy and fragile wife (Faye Dunaway). When the politico is found murdered, the investigatory trail takes on serpentine and overarching proportions, all leading to Dunaway's nefarious, ruthless businessman father (John Huston). Chinatown boasts one of the cinema's all-time great screenplays courtesy of Robert Towne which throws in everything but the kitchen sink and barely leaves you hanging from a thread. Roman Polanski's direction is masterful (his cameo as a knife wielding hood is memorable also), Nicholson and Dunaway are in top form, and legendary helmer Huston is potently menacing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Boyhood

Boyhood chronicles the coming of age life journey of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), originating with his wayfaring childhood in east and central Texas as he copes with the anguish of a broken home, splitting time between two loving but flawed parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and continuing as he burgeons into a talented though detached adult. Filmed over the course of twelve years, Richard Linklater's passion project is an always enthralling voyage whose sheer vision and scope overcomes portions of the story that should suffer from lulls and overlength, and owes a lot to the fortified performances of Arquette and Hawke and some inspired dialogue and adventitiously captured moments. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

For a documentary on his latest book release, a writer (Tom Wilkinson) recalls his 1968 visit to the titular mountainous lodge where his younger self (played now by Jude Law) interviews the mysterious owner (F. Murray Abraham) who fondly recalls his days as a bellboy under a rascally yet noble concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and their dastardly misadventures during the German invasion. The Grand Budapest Hotel marks both a maturation and a regression of sorts for Wes Anderson, containing exemplary cinematography in which his murky and expectedly overly quirky story often gets lost--a return to the style over substance form that dominated his earlier films. Fiennes turns in a commanding and engaging lead performance while some of the many character actors make memorable turns (I particularly liked Adrian Brody and Willem Dafoe as a pair of sinister brothers) while others such as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson barely serve a purpose and seem like they just showed up for the catering.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

A half-Chechnyan, half-Russian immigrant washes ashore on the docks of Hamburg, Germany and is immediately taken note of by the head of an anti-terror unit (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who hopes to use this potential threat as bait to fry a bigger fish, that is if his superiors and a visiting American emissary (Robin Wright) don't get in his way. A Most Wanted Man, an adaptation of a recent John le Carre novel, is a bit of a tease for its genre, often drumming up the suspense music and offering little payoff while Anton Corbijn, a filmmaker who has offered strong work in the past (Control, The American) mostly lets the movie sit on the screen, often to the point of tedium. It features one of the final performances of Hoffman (I think the final Hunger Games pictures where we will see him partly CGI'd will be his last) and it is a commanding one though I wasn't wild about his German accent nor that of Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams and the other Americans in the cast.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Senna

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

Clockers

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

Lonesome Dove

Two retired Texas Rangers and lifelong rivals (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones) currently running a livery in the sleepy title town decide to go on one last tremendous journey, a cattle run to Montana country and through the dangerous, dying West. From Larry McMurtry's acclaimed novel, Lonesome Dove is beautifully sentimental and a masterful demonstration in long form storytelling. In addition to the rascally Duvall and cantankerous Jones, there are also standout performances from Robert Urich as another ex-Ranger with a dark cloud around his head, Chris Cooper as a small town sheriff seeking his capture, Ricky Schroder as Jones' likely progeny, and Anjelica Huston playing Duvall's ex-flame.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The contorted bell ringer of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral becomes a pawn in his master's evil scheme to kidnap the sweet and beautiful gypsy Esmeralda. As an underground revolution concurrently ensues and Esmeralda is brought up falsely on murder charges, Quasimodo sees his opportunity to seize the day and exact revenge on his odious keeper. Carl Laemmle and Irving Thalberg's silent production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a riveting retelling of Victor Hugo's classic due to its expansive staging and an unforgettable Lon Chaney performance who appears more sparingly than one might presume.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Klute

An uncorrupted detective (Donald Sutherland) from rural Pennsylvania  travels to New York City to investigate the disappearance of a local businessman, his only contact being a high rent prostitute (Jane Fonda, an Oscar winner). When his missing person turns out to be a thread in a string of murders, he becomes his new acquaintance's protector and then lover as she becomes the bait to lure the deadly killer. Klute is a well made, typically murky, and often frustrating Alan Pakula film that fits in nicely alongside some of the other thrillers he made in that time frame (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

3 Films on Vincent and Theo van Gogh

 Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life, Paul Cox's Vincent and Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo are three films that all take the same basic story--the passion and madness of the renowned and beleaguered Dutch master and his relationship to his devoted art dealing brother--present them from different angles, and ultimately serve as extraordinary complements of each other. Lust for Life features considerable access to Van Gogh's paintings, often shown in widescreen closeup, and also the forceful and controlled performance from Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn's memorable, Oscar winning turn as the tortured artist's mentor Paul Gauguin. Cox's film is a documentary which presents footage of Van Gogh's supposed tumultuous journey, much of which is set in the idyllic South of France, and features John Hurt, ideally cast, reading Vincent's poetically revealing letters to his brother Theo. Altman's film stays true to its title devoting just about as much time to the less heralded Van Gogh sibling, has a dark tone and tempo meshed with the director's usual offbeat approach, and contains a snarlingly manic and remarkable performance from Tim Roth as Vincent and an equally well realized one from Paul Rhys as his counterpart.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Godspell

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

Passion

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

Grave of the Fireflies

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

As I Lay Dying

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

Dead Calm

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.