Friday, April 29, 2016

Lolita (1962 and 1997)

Humbert Humbert, a British gentleman and emigree haunted by a lost childhood sweetheart, falls in love with his landlady's precocious pre-adolescent daughter and dreams of a future with the two of them together. When Vladimir Nabokov's not only highly controversial but literate, layered, and thought to be unfilmable novel was billed to the public as a film adaptation in 1962, it came with the tagline "How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?" And yet it was remade again 35 years later, though under much more relaxed censoring conditions. Stanley Kubrick's initial version (with a script credited solely to Nabokov) is pristinely filmed in black and white, with James Mason as Humbert and Peter Sellers (whose role in the book as the chameleon like, and equally lecherous Quigley got an upgrade in the movie) both extraordinary. However, the film's ending is soapy and offers too many explanations. Adrian Lyne's 1997 remake is probably (after hesitating to say and again given the times) the superior film version. Although, in contrast, the film is too explicit, it cuts closer to the essence of Nabokov's novel, contains pristine cinematography, and features an ideal Humbert in Jeremy Irons.

1962 version: *** 1/2 out of ****
1997 version: *** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Leaving Las Vegas

A Hollywood screenwriter and raging alcoholic (Nicolas Cage) who had burned all his bridges long ago resolves to relocate to Vegas and drink himself to death. There he meets a gorgeous prostitute (Elisabeth Shue), similarly subjecting herself to daily degradation and recently and fortuitously relieved of her duties to an abusive pimp, and the two enter a relationship based on respect and non-interference. Although Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas, which he scripted from a novel from John O'Brien, lends itself to cliches and melodrama it still tells an incredibly moving, not entirely believable love story. Cage's performance is goofy and over the top but so heartfelt and genuine and Shue demonstrates just as much sincerity, while generating just as much empathy.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sunrise

A farmer (George O'Brien) has an affair with a seductress (Margaret Livingston) who, after fleecing him of his money, convinces him to drown his wife (Janet Gaynor). Released at the birth of the talking era, F.W.Murnau's breathtakingly expressive Sunrise is a swan song to silent film. Changing gears from soapy to soppy to somber and tragic, it always feels genuine while boasting wondrous sets, expert cinematography, and emotive portrayals from its players.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

While We're Young

An unsung documentary filmmaker (Ben Stiller) and his wife (Naomi Watts), feeling out of touch with their peers, are flattered when a fashionable young couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) takes interest in them, and his latest project in particular. Noah Baumbach's film on hipster culture, both young and aging, makes makes some excellent obsverations, has a few good lines, and almost pulls it off in the end but Stiller is weak dramatically, Driver and Seyfried are nauseating, and Watts, beautiful and talented as she is, almost seems a bit lost in her role. Plot twists are clearly telegraphed.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Rules of the Game

A French aviator despairs that his true love was not present on the runway to receive him for his latest Trans Atlantic flight record. Together, along with his garrulous best friend, they attend a luxuriant weekend gathering at the girl's husband's country estate where carefree attitudes and hostilities between members of the upstairs and down lead to a tragic case of mistaken identity. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is a purposeful satire and a sublime, absolutely dazzing juggling act. Brilliantly written, impossibly staged, and memorably cast (with a good role thrown in for the director himself, the film is a timely indictment of the French class system on the eve of world war.
**** out of ****

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Once Were Warriors

In Auckland, New Zealand, a Maorian family, descendants of ancient tribal warriors live a life in urban decay, fraught with poverty, unemployment, alienation, and abuse. From a novel by Alan Duff, Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors is startling and harsh, though thoughtful and even poetically composed. Even if it isn't always completely convincing, it manages to inform about a culture by the trials of one family, educating while hitting home with its more blunt aspects.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, April 22, 2016

What's Up, Tiger Lily

With some creative overdubbing, the Japanese spy yarn International Secret Police: Key of Keys turns into a thriller detailing a black market syndicate's relentless search for a top secret egg salad sandwich recipe. What's Up, Tiger Lily, Woody's first as a director, is a high concept film, sporadically funny though largely silly and pointless. Not so much a hint of his genius that would follow but rather a forgettable instance of his early career infantilism.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Humbling

An aging stage actor (Al Pacino) suffering a nervous breakdown hurls himself off the stage during his latest performance and is sent to a convalescence home to recuperate and is soon romantically involved with a grown lesbian daughter of close friends (Greta Gerwig). Drawn from a Philip Roth novel and a screenplay co-authored by Buck Henry, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling takes murky subject matter that was probably better suited to book form and presents them in a tepid digital production, but is given value thanks to a tremendously nuanced Pacino performance, his best in a good long while. Gerwig is a disappointing foil, Grodin is amusing in support, and the film has its moments, especially in a particularly funny stalker subplot.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Jungle Book

A computer generated live action retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s timeless story, The Jungle Book follows Mowgli, a mancub stranded in the tropical wilds and rescued by a panther who delivers him to be raised by a pack of wolves. When a Bengal tiger puts a bounty on his end, the young pup must make his way to the man village while encountering a carefree bear along the way. John Favreau’s walks a line between magical and cumbersome with a largely enjoyable child age geared story that at times becomes strikingly intense. The voicework ranges from excellent (Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba) to miscast with Bill Murray and Christopher Walken’s personalities overmatching their computer counterparts. The music from the 1967 original is oddly misused and makes you wonder why it was employed at all.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

L'Argent

A modest sum of forged francs make their way around Paris until they are revealed in the possession of a shady shop owner who passes them off on the gas man and causes his tragic downfall. The last film of Robert Bresson, based on a Tolstoy short story, is in line with the rest of his extraodinary body of work: a minimalist story, a harsh worldview, and exacting filmmaking with intensive, striking results.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, April 18, 2016

Gun Crazy

An aimless though harmless gun nut meets a devious sharpshooter after her carnival act who convinces him to go on a crime spree a la Bonnie and ClydeGun Crazy is a silly, remarkably well filmed B-picture/cautionary tale (see Reefer Madness) that manages to build tension and suspense along the way.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Black Book

Double crossed by Nazi sympathizers and taken in by the resistance, a Jewish lounge singer (Carice van Houten) is passed off as Aryan and sent to infiltrate the Dutch SS headquarters to seduce the charming commandant (Sebastian Koch). Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is overplotted and overlong, poorly acted, and with putrid dialogue. The film is not without entertainment value however and moves at breakneck speed, with inventive albeit ludicrous sequences that resemble Raiders of the Lost Ark in a way. Still, there's something off putting about this light handling of the subject matter.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, April 15, 2016

Au Hasard Balthazar

The life of a self-sacrificing donkey in a provincial French town and the many hardships and abuses it must suffer, even at the hands of its initial loving though neglectful owners. Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar is a deceptively simple tale that deep down is actually complex, meditative, spiritual parable that offers more than meets the eye while telling an overarching story that touches upon the whole human experience and, in turn, sparks a wide range of emotions. The film is beautifully shot, perfectly cast, and entirely affecting.
**** out of ****

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Yojimbo

In feudal Japan, a devious samurai (Toshiro Mifune) without a clan or a cause is recruited by the townspeople of a village overrun by two criminal syndicates and decides to play them off of each other. Kurosawa's Yojimbo is humorous, relevant, beautifully composed, not to mention immensely influential, with another wild though composed, prodigious Mifune performance at its center.
**** out of ****

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

A fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) mistreats her mute secretary (Irm Hermann) and becomes jealousy obsessive over one of her models (Hanna Schygulla), whom she left her husband for. Reworked from his autobiographical all male chamber drama to an all female casted film, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is methodically paced, and hard to get into at first but completely after a certain point. The set decor and photography are top of the line and Carstensen's peformance is tragic and memorable.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Point Blank

Double crossed and left for dead, a determined man (Lee Marvin) goes up the increasingly treacherous mob ladder, not so much to retrieve his stolen loot, but to exact retribution. John Boorman's Point Blank (remade as Payback with Mel Gibson) is a cold revenge thriller depicting shocking violence with a taciturn Marvin erupting in anger. The picture is well-made and superbly edited, with Carroll O'Connor and John Vernon playing effective baddies. Although it's a film of its time, even dated, it still garners respect today and has to be one of the more continually influential flicks of the period.
*** out of ****

Monday, April 11, 2016

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles  packs in about as much as possible into 90 minutes on the larger than life, multi-talented, vain, mysterious, ingenious virtuoso, but feels rushed and even confused as a result, while glossing over the bullet points of his life. A little fleshing out would have been helpful, although the documentary does put great footage and guests to use, and it is always a privilege to be in the company of the Boy Wonder.
*** out of ****

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Blackhat

After a series of global cyber-terrorist attacks, the FBI provisionally springs a prolific hacker (Chris Hemsworth), serving hard time in federal prison, to track down and capture the evil nerds. Even with a murky and often outlandish plot, a miscast though engaging Hemsworth, deficient character development and personal drama, Blackhat is still intriguing, measured, heart pounding, smarter than you'd expect, and expectedly stylish, proving Michael Mann, with all his usual trademarks at work, can still craft a solid, if flawed, action flick.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Color Purple

Impregnated by her father as a child before having the child stripped from her and being sold into a loveless marriage to a cruel and buffoonish husband on a turn of the Twentieth Century Southern plantation, The Color Purple tells the story of one woman's decade's long crawl into education, self-respect, and happiness. Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Alice Walker's novel is beautifully composed and aims for an old timey, Gone with the Wind feel. At its center Goldberg is a wonder, tenderly and impressively conveying much largely without the use of words. The story however meanders, is overwrought and melodramatic, and is not at the same level when focusing on other characters. Also its middle section really plods as the  film becomes more and more confused. When it finally arrives at a  climactic dinner sequence that should have been the highlight of film, is instead embarrassingly handled and would been more at home in some Eddie Murphy comedy. As for the rest of the cast, Oprah is pretty hard to stomach and Danny Glover is a caricature who doesn't know how to inhabit his character.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, April 8, 2016

Chappie

In a battered Johannesburg, oppressed by a mechanized police force, the first fully cognizant robot is stolen by hoods who raise and employ it for their criminal purposes in this nature vs. nurture parable. Even despite abounding plot contrivances and the poorly thought out, barely veiled political allusions always associated with his films, Neill Blomkamp's Chappie is exciting, nonsensical fun (though many disagreed), with extremely well handled action sequences. and even surprisingly touching despite having fully fleshed out story or characters.
*** out of ****

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

A black anthropologist summering on Martha's Vineyard rescues a visitor from suicide, but becomes fascinated, and quickly possessed, by the ancient artifact brought to him by his friend. Soon, he is drinking blood and romanticizing his mate's estranged wife. Spike Lee's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is pious, pretentious (daresay prejudiced) dreck, not too mention boring and woefully acted with a dreadful Bruce Horsnby score and a gnawing soundtrack to boot. The film is a remake of a 1973 Bill Gunn blaxploitation Ganja and Hess, unseen by me, so I can't measure up the two, but I can wish that instead of pursuing woeful remakes (while making fans pay his films production cost at that) Spike returns to the well, in which their is considerable substance, and finds another way to remember how to make a quality movie.
1/2 * out of ****

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Kingsman: The Secret Service

A promising though troubled street hooligan (Taron Egerton) is recruited by a seasoned member (Colin Firth) of a top secret government agency to compete to fill their latest opening while a megalomaniacal nerd (Sam Jackson) prepares to unleash a deadly techno-terrorist threat upon the globe. Even with several shameless sequences, too many false endings, an irritating villainous portrayal in Jackson, Matthew Vaughn's Kingsmen, from a comic series created by Mark Miller and Dave Gibbons, is exciting, not as dumb as one may suppose, and about the most fun I've had with a Hollywood action movie in a good long while.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Inside Out

When a young girl is uprooted from her Minnesota home and moved to San Francisco when her father takes a new job her emotions, personified in their various manifestations, must traverse these new foreboding waters and, when Sadness runs out of control, must go to extremes to restore balance.  Inside Out is a high concept film geared towards kids, though it takes a higher, somewhat darker aim in its latter stages.The animation ranges from cheesy to exceptional and the voice work is equally hodgepodge, all resulting in a fine rebound for Pixar but not nearly the triumph it has been proclaimed to be.
*** out of ****

Monday, April 4, 2016

Nightingale

A disturbed veteran (David Oyelowo) living alone with his mother slowly reveals the level of his psychosis as he prepares for the arrival of a beloved friend. Nightingale seeks to be disturbing and visceral, but Oyelowo, in a one man show sporting an American accent that goes in and out, doesn't really have the chops needed for this kind of performance and, with that being said, he really isn't given any help from the screenwriters who contribute poorly written dialogue and a scant plot that seems stretched out even at 82 minutes.
** out of ****

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Boardwalk Empire

Season 4 (2013) and 5 (2014)
As Nucky makes peace arrangements with Rothstein and Masseria, he pursues new business interests in Florida while being strong armed by a Harlem gangster, pursued by a crooked agent of the Justice Department, an targeted by an increasingly ambitious and ruthless Luciano. In a detached story, as his reign comes to an end, we learn Thompson's rags to riches tale of how he became Treasurer of Atlantic City. The 4th season of Boardwalk Empire is still watchable yet a far cry from where it stood in its first few runs. Wright is a disappointing and ineffectual villain, new cast additions either fall flat (Brian Geraghty, Eric Laden) or are poorly utilized (Patricia Arquette, Ron Livingston). Shea Whigham is a standout among the principal cast. The 5th and final, abbreviated outing marks a great disappointment with the showrunners appearing to take up a task (an admittedly difficult one) that was beyond them with no idea where to go. A leap forward in time meshed with a horrid backstory topped off with a pathetic, barely thought out finale was sadly where signs had been pointing for the drama and should serve as a lesson for anyone attempting to do serialized historical fiction.
Season 4 : *** out of ****
Season 5 : ** out of ****

Season 3 (2012)
As New Year's Eve 1922 is celebrated in Atlantic City, Nucky's (Steve Buscemi) decision to constrict his bootlegging practices offends a highly volatile (and easily offendable) gangster (Bobby Cannavale) who commandeers a nearby suburb and sets his sights on A.C. On other fronts, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) enjoys her newly acquired duties at the local hospital, though her seeds of dissatisfaction will germinate through the course of an affair with her husband's subordinate (Charlie Cox). Gillian  (Gretchen Mol) continues to scheme and grieve following her loss, Van Alden (Michael Shannon) attempts to establish himself in an unfriendly Windy City, and Richard (Jack Huston) may have found a solace he could have never imagined since attaining his war injury. "Boardwalk Empire's" third go round features some of the most dazzling visuals and fancy camerawork the series has had to offer, but is the most slight in terms of plot. The aforementioned subplots, in addition to others, hold interest in their own right, but often feel like filler and as not contributing to the thrust of the plot. Newcomer Cannavale is excellent though, and his explosive presence offers many alternately humorous and terrifying moments to the series. Also a body ridden season finale is not nearly as satisfying as the pulse pounding episode that preceded it.
*** 1/2

Season 2 (2011)
With a coup underway to oust Nucky, both Jimmy and the targeted treaurer's brother Eli walk a treacherous path, dealing not only with devious gangsters but also a crippling strike by the African-American community at the heart of the summer season. On top of his legal problems, Nucky faces personal problems as a discontented Margaret, now grief ridden after her daughter has been stricken with polio, finds solace with the local parish priest and in overly generous offerings to the Lord. The second season of "Boardwalk Empire" is an almost unfathomable continuation of excellence, somehow maintaining the same cinematic level of greatness achieved in season one. Steve Buscemi turns in a wonderful, nuanced performance which is unlike any other gangster portrayal, at least that I've ever seen. Michael Pitt contributes affecting award worthy work as the cheerless and deceitful Jimmy and Kelly Macdonald is still incredible in the complex role of Margaret. In an impeccable supporting cast, Michael Shannon stands out as the dogged federal agent whose story takes more than a few unexpected turns and Shea Whigham as Buscemi's frustrated, overlooked brother. With its alternately beautiful, brutal, and affecting methods, "Boardwalk Empire" achieves an excellence in television that no other series, with the exception of "Mad Men", even remotely approaches.
****


Season 1 (2010)
Usually I keep television shows out of the blog, but I feel Boardwalk Empire is a series that approaches great film and, while watching, it feels like a solid 12 hour movie. This should come as no surprise since the show is brought to us by legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese. He directed the first episode, offering the blueprint for the subsequent episodes. He also produces and consults on other aspects of the show. Boardwalk was created by Sopranos veteran Terrence Winter and he brings along other members of that great show. Again, we have a show set in New Jersey, this time in Atlantic City and again we follow professional criminals who drink, screw, curse, lie, cheat, steal, swindle, and murder. We follow several story threads and the main character is AC treasurer Nucky Thompson played by a finely tuned Steve Buscemi. This is not another Tony Soprano, as Thompson has more of a soft spot. This doesn't mean that he isn't capable of carrying out heinous acts. We meet a young Irish widow (Kelly McDonald) who comes into his life and also Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and young enforcer he sees as his own son. The story mixes real characters with fictional ones and all are played by fine actors: Michael Stuhlbarg plays Arnold Rothstein, the New York gangster who becomes at odds with Nucky and his crew. His segments are a highlight of the show and wonderfully acted by Stuhlbarg. Michael Shannon plays an agent and religious zealot on the hunt for bootleggers. We also meet characters such as a hot headed Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Warren G. Harding. Boardwalk Empire is also a visual success and a screenwriting success. In an era when ignorance passes for good television, this show is like a breath of fresh air. I urge you seek it out on DVD or on reruns on HBO.
****