Monday, September 26, 2016

Rebel Without a Cause

After his latest outburst and having been uprooted and replanted by his parents in the latest suburban neighborhood, an angst ridden teen aged delinquent (James Dean) continues to drink, loiter, vandalize, and make enemies while falling in with a small clique (Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo) who experience the same feelings of alienation, the result of either aloof, over-affectionate, misunderstanding, or absent parents. It's difficult to watch Nicholas Ray's relic of a bygone era and understand the mass appeal of its time, now coming off as pretentious, phony (especially Dean), and even bizarre. Aided by some iconic sequences and its great photography.
*** out of ****

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Baby Doll

A middle aged failed cotton farmer (Karl Malden) lives in his dilapidated plantation house with his flirtatious, childlike 19-year old wife (Carroll Baker), with whom the marriage has never been consummated. When an immigrant rival (Eli Wallach) shows off his latest acquistion, a state of the art cotton gin, the wash-out sees fit to sabotage his operation leaving Baby Doll as an instrument for revenge. Eli Kazan's racy, scandalized, and very funny realization of Tennessee Williams' only original screenplay was strikingly filmed on flavorful Mississippi locations and features an atypically outlandish performance from Malden.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Where the Green Ants Dream

A geologist is sent to survey a desert area in hopes of finding uranium deposits but finds his work disrupted by the aboriginal people who find even his testing procedures to be a violation of their spiritual practices. After the mining corporation's attempts to buy them off fail, the matter ends up in the hands of the local courts. Where the Green Ants Dream is peculiar and offbeat, which is expected for a movie by Werner Herzog, but lacks the mystery that surrounds his great works. It also feels cheaply made, not well thought out, hurt by an absence of a musical score, and marred by a pronounced politically correct stance.
** out of ****

Friday, September 23, 2016

Late Spring/Early Summer

Before the poignant and sorrowful Tokyo Story, Ozu's first two entries a series of family centered dramas dubbed the Noriko trilogy (in reference to the same named though separate characters portrayed by Setsuko Hara) take a strikingly similar set-up viewed from a different angle:

Late Spring tells of father's sometimes duplicitous efforts to marry off his doting near 30 year old daughter (Hara) against her wishes, and is told in the beloved director's usual contemplative, subtle manner while featuring fine performances and an incredible, low key ending. Many subtle reference depicting the westernization of Japanese culture are fascinating

In Early Summer, Hara again finds her family playing matchmaker, but instead goes out a stubborn, independent limb by favoring a recently reacquainted childhood sweetheart who does not match up to the family's standards of marriage. Filmed in beautiful greyscale, the film is sweet natured, observant, and extremely measured

Late Spring: *** 1/2 out of ****
Early Summer: *** out of ****

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Blue Angel

After finding lewd photos of a local showgirl (Marlene Dietrich) in the possession of his students, a high school professor (Emil Jannings) travels to her cabaret with intentions of reprimanding her but instead falls victim to her deadly charms. Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel starts on a hysterically funny path that follows its course to a seedy, tragic, and even horrifying destination while depicting Dietrich at her sexiest and most devious while featuring Jannings in a humiliating, impressively mannered performance.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shoah

Claude Lanzmann’s lionized nine plus hour Holocaust documentary, famously crafted without a frame of historical stock footage, is haunting and powerful in select moments, though more numbing than anything overall and ultimately exhausting and repetitious. It also serves as a show of self-aggrandizement for its filmmaker who interjects himself often, whether he's prodding a survivor to reveal a painfully suppressed memory, bickering with party functionaries over semantics, cajoling a group of Poles to admit to anti-Semitism, or casting blame and attempting to induce guilt on anyone and everyone for the horrors that took place at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor among other sites of unparalleled barbarism which are revisited with mesmerizing tracking shots.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

James White

After burying his estranged father , an educated, angry and aimless young man (Christopher Abbott), with desultory plans at a writing career, parties with his best friend (Scott Mescudi) while seeing his mother (Cynthia Nixon) through cancer’s final stages. James White is made with sincerity, which makes me hesitant to knock it, but director Josh Mond’s screenplay is so scant and the acting so amateurish at times the enterprise winds up feeling like a film school dissertation. There is an excellent scene near the end featuring Ron Livingston.

** ½ out of ****

Monday, September 19, 2016

Idiocracy

An average schlub (Luke Wilson) is selected by the Pentagon to participate in a yearlong cryogenic freezing experiment where he is forgotten of course and awakened half a millennia later to fight himself the most intelligent being among a population of dimwits. Mike Judge's Idiocracy, which has seen a revival during this election season, is a half-assed, barely thought out, rudimentary satire that is not without its laugh out loud moments.
** out of ****

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Murder of a President

After unexpectedly winning a tight 1880 presidential campaign, James A. Garfield showed much promise in the job before being gunned down by an itinerant paranoiac just four months into his first term. Eventually succumbing to his injuries, The President may have pulled through if not for blind loyalty his doctor, an old friend, who insisted on outmoded medical practices to treat his wound. From a historical novel by Candice Millard, Murder of a President is informative, but hurt by tacky recreations, an unneeded Ken Burns imitated approach, and an extremely narrow focus of Garfield's life, career, and presidency.
*** out of ****

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Conspiracy

Early winter, 1942, in a snowy, idyllic mountainside manor in Wanssee just outside of Berlin, the top Nazi brass, representing the major bureaus of the party, gather for a top secret summit to discuss the Fuehrer's latest dictate: the Final Solution and how it will be practically carried out and streamlined. Hosted by a meticulous Adolf Eichmann (Stanley Tucci) and presided over by the suave and cunning Heydrich (Kenneth Branagh), the men casually drink, jest, smoke, and eat while laying the groundwork for the deportation and extermination of the Jews from Greater Germany. Drawn from the only known copy of the meeting's minutes, Frank Pierson's Conspiracy, which plays like a perverse adaptation of 12 Angry Men, is a brilliant, chilling, and intelligent imagining of the odious gathering and gives striking insight into the personalities that colluded to found such unthinkable atrocities. The cast is top shelf, with Branagh, Tucci, and Colin Firth (playing an attorney concerned with the legalities involved) standing out.
**** out of ****

Friday, September 16, 2016

Amy

This profile on Amy Winehouse, an Oscar winner for Best Documentary, is watchable though not all that compelling and struck me as a particularly unremarkable rise and fall documentary story (a descent into booze and pills, personal demons channeled into art, middle class angst, daddy issues, etc., etc.) of a talented songstress performing substandard jazz numbers. The film is more or less composed exclusively of home video footage which in and of itself is no small achievement for a nonfiction film.

*** out of ****

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Flying Circus and the Python Films

It is difficult to describe the appeal of Monty Python, the irreverent and game changing British comedic troupe, when their irreverent material is as often inane and borderline unwatchable as it is uproarious. Nevertheless the appeal of the group, which consists of members John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam and began on the stage and continued on through television and film, is undeniable and their influence on comedy is immeasurable. Here is a brief rundown of their work:

Flying Circus ran on the BBC between 1969 and 1974 with a feature film titled with the group's favorite segue And Now for Something Completely Different sandwiched midway in its run which took the odd approach of refilming some of their greatest hits without of the presence of a studio audience, the result of which is strangely compelling. The series has many regrettable sketches and running gags, and I feel I should keep my opinion on Gilliam's animations to myself in fear of being shunned, but it is absolutely worth suffering the dreck to get to their best and most outrageous routines (or you could just watch them on YouTube---my favorite bit is Palin's bumbling Spanish Inquisitor).

The gang followed up the series with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, perhaps the most widely seen of their features and what I'd personally consider the best of the lot. This silly take on the Arthurian legend has many indelibly hysterical moments and only starts to come apart at the seams towards the very end.

The controversy generated by Life of Brian, which tells the tale of the child born a manger over from Christ, catapulted the Pythons to international superstardom, but the film offers easy and obvious satire, with belabored gags, and laughs that are few and far between (though those few present are hearty). Gilliam's direction does achieve great period look (though his influence beyond that is distracting) and Palin's Pontius Pilate is unforgettable. Casting Chapman in the lead serves as a great disappointment considering what is lost in the supporting roles.

Time Bandits is not officially a Python movie but it was directed by Gilliam who cowrote the script with Palin and features cameos from both Palin and Cleese. The fantastical and occasionally creepy children's story deals with a band of dwarves in possession of a time travel map who take a neglected youth on their marauding journey through history. The film again falls apart towards the end but the actors are likable and the proceedings are worthwhile for the hilarious cameos, which also include Ralph Richardson and Sean Connery. 

Next up was Live at the Hollywood Bowl, a live show converted to film and released theatrically which consists of old sketches and new that comes off quite well leaving you pondering if their material isn't best suited for the stage. 

Meaning of Life, which takes a surreal look into each of life's stages, is a sporadically funny feature which is hurt by dark and atypically heavy dosages of cynicism and vulgarity. The short film that opens the movie is a highlight and the "Every Sperm is Sacred" number is priceless.

In 2014, the Pythons returned for a live farewell show of sorts, Monty Python Live (Mostly), which featured an array of live performances, clips old and new, and a musical revue, all with the participation of the remaining and surprisingly capable troupe members, save Graham Chapman who is roundly toasted during the performance.

Blade Runner

In a bleak and not too distant future, the Blade Runner unit of the LAPD is charged with tracking down and “retiring” rogue replicants, or highly intelligent human cyborgs produced by an ignominious global corporation. When six of these androids escape from their transport and seek refuge in the city, tainted detective Richard Deckard (Harrison Ford) is assigned to the deadly case, never suspecting he’d fall for one their own (Sean Young) he meets along the trail. Bearing just a passing resemblance to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a triumph in set design and visuals, which alone justify the price of admission, even if the plot is uninvolving, the romantic subplot doesn’t bear much weight, and the film is as cold and lifeless as one of its cyborgs. The Ford performance is unlikable, awkward, and amateur, probably by design, and Rutger Hauer is frighteningly electric. Following the initial studio cut, which features putrid, dumbed down Phillip Marlowe like narration, the film went through several subsequentcuts, varying in different degrees, Scott’s final cut in 2007 probably being the most worthy of your time.

*** out of ****

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Band Wagon

An aging, has-been dancer (Fred Astaire) signs on to star in a career reviving musical revue but must contend with an intimidating, leggy costar (Cyd Charisse), a pair of neurotic writers, and an overambitious director (Jack Buchanan) who sees their production as the ultimate staging of Faust. By reutilizing old Broadway songs in the same manner of Singin' in the Rain, Vincente Minnelli’s lively musical doesn’t achieve quite the same heights, but is light and funny with great dance numbers. The songs, which include a few standards, are nothing to write home about and the film settles for being routine about halfway through. Astaire is amiable, and Charisse is both incredibly talented and beautiful, while Buchanan is a riot.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Stardust Memories

A comic director (Woody Allen)travels oversees to promote his latest attempt at serious filmmaking at an international festival and is bombarded by journalists, fans, and groupies heralding him as a genius while, back home he struggles with success, his melancholic girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling), and not being able to be taken seriously as himself. With Stardust Memories, Woody lays on the Fellini pretty thick, has a lot of ideas that aren't all necessarily tied together, and goes to very inward, autobiographical places, even for himself, but still tells a very funny, observant story while frequent collaborator Gordon Willis provides exquisite B&W cinematography.
*** out of ****

Monday, September 12, 2016

If....

teen aged nonconformist (Malcolm McDowell) leads a rebellion against the callous, blue-blooded upperclassmen who unofficially supervise his boarding school. McDowell is at his smarmy best in Lindsay Anderson’s outrageous, brilliant, and surreal counterculture geared film which features stunning photography in both black and white and color, plus an ending that actually may shock modern audiences more than those of its time.

*** ½ out of ****

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Marriage of Maria Braun

With Allied bombs landing in every direction, an outwardly naive young woman (Hanna Schygulla) marries a serviceman who rushes off to the front and his presumed death just after exchanging their vows. While tirelessly trying to learn of his fate, she takes up with an American G.I. and begins to seduce a wealthy industrialist. The Marriage of Maria Braun, the first film in a Rainer Werner Fassbinder trilogy showcasing women in postwar German settings, is brazen and offbeat, brilliantly directed and unpredictable, even if it lulls in the middle before its shocking, extraordinary ending.
**** out of ****

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

The story of how an aspiring teen aged DJ (Corey Hawkins) at a low rent Southern California club teamed up with his lyrically gifted friend (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), and a streetwise crack dealer (Jason Mitchell) to head what would become the contentious and short-lived rap supergroup N.W.A., which would be tainted by a self-interested manager (Paul Giamatti) and would leave several lasting hip-hop dynasties in addition to inspiration for forthcoming artists. Casting is key in F. Gary Gray's fresh, well-made ode to thuggery which still doesn't totally avoid music biopic trappings and sadly paints its subjects as victims and 1st amendment martyrs.
*** out of ****

Friday, September 9, 2016

Summer of Sam

As David Berkowitz targets brunettes throughout the New York boroughs in the sweltering summer of ’77, a Bronx neighborhood is whipped into a frenzy and mob rule begins to reign while a hairdresser (John Leguizamo) believing he was marginally spared from the killings begins experiencing guilt over his own infidelities while a friend (Adrian Brody) who has recently adopted a punk lifestyle becomes a target. With Summer of Sam Spike Lee tries to accomplish way too much, all the while saying and exploring very little in an overlong hodgepodge. The film works best when played in minor key, as a slice of life picture, the kind of area where Lee excels Best. Leguizamo is a standout in a large cast.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, September 8, 2016

After Dark, My Sweet

An imbalanced ex-boxer (Jason Patric) stumbles into a sleepy desert bar, is accosted by the bartender for no apparent reason, and comforted and then seduced by a beautiful and troubled patron (Rachel Ward). After bringing him home, she introduces him to an older companion (Bruce Dern) of undisclosed relation before involving the drifter in a harebrained kidnapping plan. From a novel by Jim Thompson, James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet is a steamy, seedy, cold, and intelligent modern noir with fine performances from Ward and Dern and really a virtuoso one from Patric. Jarring, with a knockout ending.
*** ½ out of ****

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sully

In the days following his January 2009 daring and unconventional landing of a US Airways commercial flight on the Hudson River, Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) ambles around Manhattan stupefied at his newfound fame while reliving the incident in his head before answering questions from an inane investigation committee fueled by hindsight. Clint Eastwood’s take on the Miracle on the Hudson is quiet and reflective with a well-cast Hanks in an inward looking lead performance. Still there is absolutely no dramatic pull, a pointless and clumsy plot structure, and typical carelessness towards casting by the director all resulting in something resembling a rushed network movie of the week. For a better treatment of a similar subject (which was likely inspired by this event) see Flight.
** out of ****

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Wolf Hall

After his friend and mentor Cardinal Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) is conspiratorially destroyed for failing to procure a divorce for Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance), who began life as a blacksmith’s son, maneuvers his way onto the king’s court and plays a deadly game of intrigue and revenge. Drawn from two books in a Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall is a measured and involving BBC miniseries with exemplary costumes and set design. Rylance, a study in understatement, is outstanding and it is nice to watch Lewis playing against type, here an impotent, sympathetic Henry VII who is beginning to reveal the seeds of madness. As Anne Boleyn, Claire Foy is commanding.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, September 5, 2016

Radio Days

A middle aged narrator relates stories of Brooklyn upbringing, his neurotic family, summers at the boardwalk, and the urban myths surrounding the radio personalities whose programs him and his friends obsessively followed. Told in a series of vignettes, Woody Allen's Radio Days is warm, nostalgic, and sporadically funny. Though not quite coming together as a cohesive whole, it is assisted by the period detail and music, great sets, and a fine extended cast.
*** out of ****

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Midnight Special

A young boy with extrasensory perception (Jaeden Lieberher) serves as redeemer for a fanatical Texas religious compound and presents a genuine threat to national security. When it becomes evident the feds are moving in, he is taken on the lamb by his birth father (Michael Shannon) and his capable non-believer childhood friend (Joel Edgerton). Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special blends elements of Close Encounters, E.T., and Starman in a solidly crafted, satisfying adult geared production that still feels somewhat incomplete and aloof, with an expected though out of place and even idiotic ending. Shannon and Edgerton carry the film, young Lieberher successfully and thankfully underplays his part, and I still don't understand why Adam Driver keeps turning up in these significant roles.
*** out of ****

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, an inquest in to the life and enigma of the Apple prodigy, is ultimately a disappointment for prolific documentarian Alex Gibney, oddly refusing to look its hypocritical, egomaniacal subject in the eye when it clearly has the objective to set out to do so, and winds up as just one more failed screen translation of his life's work. Instead, the movie goes off on strange tangents and even nauseatingly succumbs to the same adulation it is so ponderous and critical of at its outset. Even the film's technical qualities are not up to snuff, appearing to be shoddily strung together with obvious narration by the director.
** out of ****