Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Grey Zone

For unheard of privileges and a months long stay of execution, the Sonderkammando unit at Auschwitz calms the new arrivals before the gassings, cleans the death chambers, and loads the bodies into the furnaces. As a revolt is planned in several of the facilities, female inmates are tortured and killed while many of the men question their role and what they would do to stay alive. Tim Blake Nelson's grim, unrelenting, and oppressive The Grey Zone is a potent, talky drama which boasts excellent performances (including Harvey Keitel, Allan Corduner, and Steve Buscemi) and was unsurprisingly based on the director's own play which in turn was based on an account from survivor Dr. Miklos Nyiszli.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A hopelessly depressed office drone (Jim Carrey) opts for a revolutionary new procedure to have his flighty ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) purged from his memory after discovering she had the operation done in reference to him. While put under, he finds his subconscious clinging tight to the memories while intuiting that his own identity is being siphoned by one of the technicians. Impressive Charlie Kaufman screenplay (and amazingly one of his least cerebral) is given an overly fanciful treatment by director Michel Gondry and probably not as deep as it purports itself to be. I found Winslet hard to take, despite the glowing press she received at the time, and Carrey truly owns the movie.
*** out of ****

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Alien: Covenant

On an years long interspace journey carrying somnolent passengers to colonize an unspoiled planet and just after a conflagration claims the life of their captain, a crew receives a signal from a nearby planet which they detour towards. There they find an android (Michael Fassbender), MIA from another crashed vessel, who has been manipulating the weaponized DNA of a deadly parasite. Alien: Covenant is an adequate if unspectacular follow up to Prometheus with routine action sequences though the scenes with Fassbender, and notions surrounding artificial intelligence are still intriguing.
*** out of ****

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Barry Lyndon

The rise and fall of Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal), an Irishman born to modest means in the late 18th Century who finds himself exiled from his village following a duel over a flame, robbed blind of all possessions, serving and deserting in two armies, before acquainting with a disreputable cardsharp and weasling his way into high society but finding himself unable to keep his footing there. Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, from a Thackeray novel, is among the coldest, most calculated, and painstaking of all his features which also bears some of the most striking and pristine cinematography ever put to film, courtesy of John Alcott. O'Neal's performance is underplayed and excellent while given great support by a company of virtual unknowns. The film is long and slow-burning, but extremely involving and endlessly fascinating.
**** out of ****

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

25th Hour

In the wake of 9/11 New York City, a thoughtful and personable coke dealer (Edward Norton) sits along the river with his recently rescued pup and ponders his last day of freedom and the limited choices they present as he must report to prison the following day. In the meantime, he ties up loose ends with his alcoholic father (Brian Cox) and loving but suspicious girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) and catches up with loyal but troubled childhood pals (Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman). From a novel and screenplay by David Benioff, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour is an operatic, involving, and powerfully acted work with Norton giving one of his finest performances and a noted, central “mirror” sequence a particular highlight. As for the detractions, Dawson seems out of her league amongst the other players and Cox’s narrative fantasy finale is way too much.

*** ½ out ****

Monday, September 11, 2017

Sons of the Desert

When their fraternity announces a beer-soaked convention in Chicago, Stan and Ollie know they must be in attendance which means spinning a tale about needing a medical sabbatical in Honolulu. The duo realize the jig is up when the front pages report of the Hawaii ocean liner overturning and they now must hide from their exceedingly angry and heavily armed wives and concoct an even greater whopper. Hal Roach produced Sons of the Desert is laugh out loud funny made with incessant pratfalls, muggings, misunderstandings, idiocy, and stretching of a gag as far as it will go.

*** ½ out of ****

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Celebrity

A bored travel journalist (Kenneth Branagh) leaves his wife (Judy Davis) and his line of work to pursue celebrity interviews and a life of hedonism while stepping all over the beautiful new women in his life. Meanwhile, she meets a too good to be ture TV executive (Joe Mantegna), producer of daytime schlock, and finds herself reborn, also as an assessor of the rich and famous. With sleek black and white cinematography by Sven Nykvist and a pretentious story on the vapidness of stardom, Woody Allen again enters Fellini territory which doesn't really mesh with his standard fare, though there are many fine moments and the movie is perfectly watchable. Branagh does his best Woody impersonation and Davis, an Allen regular, finds her best role in one of his pictures. Many stars appear with Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron, and Donald Trump being the most memorable.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Things to Come

The next century is forecast as Earth is plunged into seemingly perpetual world war which leads to a crushing pestilence and ultimately a reconstruction which is highlighted by aggressive space exploration. Simplistic, harsh, prognostic Alexander Korda produced cautionary tale by HG Wells, which was made with his direct involvement including writing the screenplay, makes memorable use of miniature and montage but grows somewhat redundant in segments. Raymond Massey and Ralph Richardson are standouts among the cast.
*** out of ****

Friday, September 8, 2017

Leon Morin, Priest

During the German Occupation, a repressed, recently widowed atheist (Emmanuelle Riva) strikes up a friendship with her attractive, impassioned local priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and finds herself being drawn both to the popular cleric but also unremittingly to the faith. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Leon Morin, Priest is offbeat, intellectual fare, expertly filmed in beautiful black and white, and always moving and involving with ardent performances from Riva and Belmondo.

**** out of ****

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

For Your Eyes Only

A weapons system aboard a British Naval sub is attacked and sunken which James Bond (Roger Moore) is called in to retrieve before the perpetrators or the Russians can reach it, as he is joined by the beautiful, revenge bent daughter (Carole Bouquet) of an allied Greek scientist who was also targeted. For Your Eyes Only is a tepid, low-tech 007 entry with lazy storytelling and the dialogue at its lamest, with Topol making a welcomed supporting character, Carole Bouquet a beautiful Bond girl, and Julian Glover a flimsy villain.
** ½ out of ****

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Richard III

In an England resembling Nazi Germany, when the Lancaster king and his heir are killed during battle by the Yorks, hunchbacked Richard (Ian McKellen) plots a bloody and heartless play for the throne, taking the lives of his brother and nephews as he quickly spirals into madness. Richard Loncraine’s filming of Richard Eyre’s Shakespeare stage reworking is a cruel and violent vision, with a fierce and towering McKellen performance and a strong supporting cast.
*** out of ****

Friday, September 1, 2017

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Members of the Starship Enterprise sit marooned light years away from home with their vessel destroyed, in possession of an alien Klingon craft, and facing a laundry list of Federation charges. When an alien probe inadvertently begins to destroy Earth due to their inability to contact now extinct whales, the crew travels back in time to the twentieth century to retrieve a pair of cetaceans and end the planetary meltdown. The Voyage Home is a well-filmed, satisfying entry with a ridiculous premise and corny, sometimes amusing screenplay which still ultimately feels like a prolonged episode.
*** out of *****

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Game of Thrones

It is difficult to review television without giving away something of the plot. Tread lightly if you haven't seen the series in its entirety.

Season 7 (2017)
As the threat from the White Walkers grows ever more imminent, Jon and Daenerys finally acquaint as they quarrel over patronage before coming to terms with an alliance and a potential love affair and Cersei and Jaime prepare for war at King’s Landing while the surviving stark siblings have a bitter reunion at Winterfell as Littlefinger’s presence ominously looms. As the end nears in this first half of the final season, the pace is quickened, the storylines converge, and the number of battle sequences increase, the series is still bogged down by unnecessary asides, woeful plotting and characters, absolutely insipid dialogue.
** 1/2 out of ****

Season 6 (2016)
Cersei plots revenge while sitting back helpless in humiliation as her son is taken in by the High Sparrow and the gods, Arya learns some harsh lessons in life and death, and Sansa, after being rescued by an unlikely source, reunites with an unsurprisingly resurrected and differently composed Jon as they gear up to retake Winterfell from the odious Ramsay Bolton. In this first season without George R.R. Martin as a writer and as the series eyes the finish line and moves all of its pawns into place, it is nice to see the pace finally pick up with so much finally happening in this multi-storied universe, with also some incredible set pieces to boot in the latter episodes. Still the quality of the dialogue seems the worst its ever been, some stories still seem stuck in limbo (i.e. Daenerys and Tyrion), while Arya's would be powerful tale comes off as insipid and disappointing.
*** out of ****

Season 4 (2014) and Season 5 (2015)
An act of treachery at the Royal Wedding sends Tyrion toward a new destiny and Sansa into greater peril. Daenerys learns how to rule over the recently liberated Meereen and Stannis provides relieve to the Night's Watch only to find more obstacles on his quest to the Iron Throne. The fourth season of Game of Thrones is a marked improvement over the previous one, with the intrigue at King's Landing exciting enough to cover for the dull wheel spinning that continues to go on elsewhere (i.e. The Wall, Meereen), only to return for a dreadful, monotonous fifth season that brings nothing closer to resolution except in killing off several major characters in the end, which surely will thrill many fans but seems a giant waste of their protracted storylines. Without having read the books, it almost seems as if George R.R. Martin crafted an excellent first entry, which was then adapted into a great first season, and then had absolutely no idea what he signed on for or where it was going after that. While watching the "previously on" segment for Sunday's finale I realized that I had never seen a show with so much going on where so little actually happens.
Season 4: *** out of ****
Season 5 ** out of ****

Season 3 (2013)
As the inhabitants of King’s Landing recover from the their costly victory at the Battle of Blackwater and Stannis and his few remaining followers lick their wounds on a remote island, war parties led by Rob Stark and Daenerys Targaryen continue their arduous march on the capital. I wanted to keep this short and sweet after feeling the ire from panning another highly popular show, but season three represents an even steeper decline for this beloved series and, even in the “Golden Age of Television” as many have dubbed it, provides further evidence of the difficulties of sustaining an extended serial, even one based on extensive source material. You can almost picture George R.R. Martin and the HBO execs sitting at their round table brainstorming their smoke and mirrors tactics saying, “You know, we could just go through with a long, boring, protracted season where things wind up basically where they started, so long as we kill off a few major players in the end, we’ll still have ‘em hooked.”
** out of ****

Season 2 (2012)
As three challengers to the throne march upon King's Landing, an unexpected foe lays siege on Winterfell, causing more turmoil and heartache to the already beset Stark family. Tyrion has his hands full as Hand of the King in dealing with his treacherous sister and malevolent nephew. Daenerys, her dragons, and dwindling tribesman remain stranded across the Narrow Sea and Jon Snow begins his tour beyond the Wall as the dreaded Winter finally arrives. Following the spectacular first season of Game of Thrones, the followup series, while still maintaining a high level of interest, meanders and goes in circles for many of its story lines, and ones which were the top draw in season one (ie Daenerys, Jon Snow and the Wall, Rob Stark and his army) now seem to have lost their way and are stuck in standstill for virtually this entire round. Also, following the exit of Sean Bean, the show does not have a lead actor to anchor itself around and while Peter Dinklage (who went from Best Supporting Actor Emmy Winner to first billed in the credits) is excellent, he is not a leading man. I was still engaged with this season. The court intrigue and Arya's storyline worked best for me but the show seemed only interested in its primary story, which was made evident in the climactic Battle of Blackwater episode. "Game of Thrones" is a vast drama, and about as in depth as anything you can expect from television that still nonetheless needs to iron out its storytelling kinks.
*** out of ****

Season 1 (2011)
A long and brutal winter is approaching the kingdom of Westeros and treachery is afoul as the Hand of the King has been murdered. Surrounded by the cunning and powerful family of his duplicitous wife, King Robert Baratheon sends for his old friend and battle mate Eddard Stark to take up the position of the deceased and be unwillingly hurled into the deadly title scheme. The HBO adaptation of the George R.R. Martin novels is an excellent entry in the fantasy genre, simultaneously telling an involving, intelligent, violent, but grounded other worldly tale. Filmed throughout Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as in parts of Morocco, the series features the most stunning visuals to be found in any television series. Its epic cast of mostly British players is uniformly excellent and if forced to select a handful as my favorite I would chose Iain Glen as a courageous exiled knight, Emilia Clarke as his queen and charge, samely exiled, Peter Dinklage as a witty and underestimated dwarf, and Sean Bean as the noble, sullen Eddard Stark. "Game of Thrones" is wonderfully engaging entertainment that isn't afraid to break the "rules" of television and has characterization and intelligence to match its harsh tone and violence.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Four Feathers

A young man groomed to be an officer in the Queen’s Army fears himself to be a coward and, believing himself to be in the right, resigns just as his unit is being shipped off to fight the Khalifah in Sudan. Shamed by his friends, he must use his own means and backchannels to prove his mettle to them, his new bride, and himself.  Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers displays a radiant Technicolor decades ahead of its time, a fine cast of characters (including Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith), and a rousing telling of A.E.W. Mason’s story though some of it is diluted by many protracted sequences.

*** ½ out of ****

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Tales of Hoffman

While carousing in a basement barroom during intermission, a sworn enemy intercepts a rendez-vous note from the show’s star as the poet tells the tragic stories of three long-lost loves. Done in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s grand style, The Tales of Hoffman is an uncompromising vision of Jacques Offenbach’s opera featuring stunning singing and dancing (including Moira Shearer fresh off of her appearance in the filmmakers’ The Red Shoes) and outlandish and unforgettable set design.
*** ½ out of ****

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Indian Runner

A Nebraskan deputy sheriff (David Morse) tries to understand and welcome his troubled brotlher (Viggo Mortensen) into his home after his return from Vietnam, but his wayward nature puts him on a course of self-destruction and in contention with everyone who crosses his path. Much of Sean Penn's directorial debut resonates, with a story inspired by Bruce Springsteen's Highway Patrolman, but the movie is pretentious and immaturely conceived, lethargic and overlong. Morse is a strong, stoic presence and Mortensen has his moments if the overall performance is inconsistent.
** out of ****

Friday, August 25, 2017

Lifeboat

Eight passengers man a lifeboat after their ship is torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, which is also simultaneously struck. When the sub's captain is pulled aboard, he is greeted with hostility and paranoia although his knowledge of the sea may be the only thing guiding the vessel to safety or peril. Confined entirely to the small craft, Lifeboat may be Alfred Hitchcock's most atypical work though it is creaky and plays almost like social theater of the era. An excellent cast buoys the production with standouts including Tellulah Bankhead as a spoiled and worldly journalist, William Bendix as a wounded traveler, Hume Cronyn as a novice sailor, and Walter Slezak as the shifty German.
*** out of ****

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Deconstructing Harry

A writer (Woody Allen) is being honored by his college (which incidentally expelled him) but can’t find anyone to attend with due to his alienation of friends and family through his work, which is brought to life in heightened, mirrored vignettes. Allen’s reworking of Wild Strawberries is a self-revealing and at times jarring and atypically profane black comedy that employs an irritating jump-cut technique but is still mostly very funny.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Moonraker

After a shuttle is spacejacked, 007 travels to a billionaire's (Michael Lonsdale) Californian compound and then the far reaches of space while, with a the help of a sensual CIA agent (Lois Chiles) posing as a research scientist, uncovering a genocidal plot to wipe out the world's population and start anew with only the most beautiful members of each of race. After a series peak with The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bond series returned with this curious piece of cheese and obvious Star Wars ripoff that approaches so bad its good territory. Lonsdale makes an adequate villain and Richard Kiel's return as Jaws is much welcomed.
** out of ****

Monday, August 21, 2017

Fight Club

A disaffected auto recall adjuster (Edward Norton), suffering from insomnia and addicted to 12-step groups, finds his life radically changed by a nihilistic, narcissistic soap procuring stranger (Brad Pitt) with their initial creation of underground boxing clubs growing into something more radical, coordinated, and dangerous. From Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, David Fincher’s cutting edge and kinetically crafted Fight Club is often cruel, unpleasant, and ultimately senseless though it strikes a resounding chord while sending out mixed messages. Norton, Pitt, and a crucial Helena Bonham Carter are all at the top of their craft.
*** ½ out of ****

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Wind River

While searching for a predatory mountain lion on a Wyoming Indian reservation, a hunter/tracker (Jeremy Renner) for the Fish and Wildlife Service instead locates the raped and murdered body of a young Native woman who died in the same fashion as his own daughter several years earlier. Still grieving himself, he teams up with an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and local law enforcement in an effort to track the killer. Led by a commanding and stoic Renner performance and featuring beautiful location scenery, Taylor Sheridan's Wind River is an often profound mystery thriller that favors character and emotion over action, while purveying all exceedingly well.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Tender Mercies

A broken down country singer (Robert Duvall), estranged from his work partner wife (Betty Buckley) and their 18 year old daughter (Ellen Barkin) and lost in the bottle, is shown sympathy by an angelic single mother (Tess Harper) who runs a gas station/motel in the desolate part of Texas. As the two connect and marry, the singer attempts to repair his soul while fixing old wounds and moving on with the next act of his life. From a screenplay by Horton Foote, Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies is a rare kind of film in that it embodies quiet and good-naturedness and resolves to be always emotionally honest. Duvall, in his sole Oscar winning role, is reserved, moving, and shows an aptitude for singing, some of the songs which he wrote himself. Harper is lovely as the young widow, Buckley is strong, and Wilford Brimley is great in support playing the latter's manager in a manner only he can. Beautifully photographed by Russell Boyd.
**** out of ****

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Souls for Sale

After getting bad vibes from her murderous fugitive husband (Lew Cody) en route to their honeyman, a young beauty (Eleanor Boardman) hops off her train in the middle of the barren California desert and is rescued by an actor (Frank Mayo) riding a camel filming latest adventure story. Now she struggles to gain fame in the cutthroat industry, falls into a love triangle between the dashing male lead and a stern director (Richard Dix), while her husband, having noted her stardom, returns to reclaim her. Solid silent studio film contains great insider vantage points and cameos, including fascinating appearances by Charlie Chaplin at work and Erich von Stroheim on the set of Greed, and a fantastic, apocalyptic finale.
*** ½ out of ****

Monday, August 14, 2017

Everyone Says I Love You

A depressed neurotic expatriate (Woody Allen) romances a beautiful fellow American (Julia Roberts) in Venice with inside information through his daughter from her psychoanalyst while his ex-wife (Goldie Hawn) and current husband (Alan Alda) and the rest of their sprawling family frolic in New York City while falling in and out of love. The usual Allen fare musicalized to old standards, Everyone Says I Love You is too unfocused, light, and scattered but often very funny. Highlights include specters singing during a wake, Goldie and Woody’s elegant number along the Seine, and the closing Marx Brothers masquerade.

*** out of ****

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Spy Who Loved Me

After British and Russian nuclear subs are hijacked by a maniacal billionaire (Curt Jurgens), with a gargantuan metal mouth henchman (Richard Kiel), a penchant for sharks, and hellbent on submerging the planet and creating an underwater civilization, Bond (Roger Moore) is called into action and paired with a slinky Moscow agent (Barbara Bach) with a deadly vendetta against the British spy. The Spy Who Loved Me is a surprisingly strong, well made, and often spoofed entry with Bach a game Bond girl and Moore finally settling into the role nicely. Jurgens makes a less than formidable villain but Kiel's entry into the series is both fun and menacing.
*** 1/2 out of ****