Friday, July 31, 2015

Red Desert

Like all Antonioni films I've encountered, Red Desert is cold, empty, and somewhat turgid, dealing with upper class alienation (here a depressed dissatisfied married woman enters into an affair with a traveling businessman), but likewise it contains excellent photography and, here, fine performances from Richard Harris and the beautiful Monica Vitti, all of which aid in bullying through the film.
*** out of ****

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Dirty Pretty Things

A Nigerian doctor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) exiled from his own country and living illegally in London, drives a cab by day and works a hotel front desk by night, turning a blind eye to the various vices he encounters while performing simple medical procedures under the table and living with a Turkish maid (Audrey Tatou). His life gets thrown into chaos when one sleepless, ordinary night, a prostitute friend asks him to check the clogged toilet in her room. From a script by Steven Knight, Dirty Pretty Things is a thriller with an immigration agenda, telling a seamy tale of the underbelly of London and while it is not as shocking as its subject matter would indicate, it is nonetheless intriguing with exacting direction from Stephen Frears and a brilliant performance from Ejiofor.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Amadeus

Antonio Salieri (F.Murray Abraham), former court composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) and perfectly average musician, broods in madness, jealousy, and despair in a Viennese asylum as he recounts the buffoonish, divinely talented Mozart (Tom Hulce) and the mysterious rumors surrounding his premature demise. Amadeus is a consummate composition combining outstanding direction from Milos Forman, brilliant writing from Peter Shaffer (adapting his hit play), haunting scenery and imagery, deft incorporation of the great composer's work, superlative performances from Abraham and Hulce (offering perfect contrast), and fine supporting work from Jones and Elizabeth Berridge. Yet beyond all its attributes, the film's greatest achievement may be the fact that it is simply fun, perhaps the funniest and most entertaining of all period pieces or historical "nonfiction".
**** out of ****

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Under the Skin

An alien life form assumes the guise of a seductress (Scarlett Johansson) who travels around Glasgow, luring lonely and eager young men to her residence and forever possessing their souls. Jonathan Glazer, who has made compelling fare from out there material (Sexy Beast, Birth), falls short here offering a plodding, pointless, and tedious exercise to which very little is gained from bizarre, state of the art visuals.
* 1/2 out of ****

Monday, July 27, 2015

Selma

Martin Luther King's tumultuous 1965 campaign is recreated, beginning with his acceptance of the Nobel Prize and the 16th Street Church bombing and culminating with a march on Montgomery, Alabama and the Voting Rights Act. Ava DuVernay's Selma is unsubtle, heavy handed, and pretentious with David Oyelowo effective during powerful moments but failing to create a character and get into the the skin of his idolized subject. Famous historical roles are badly miscast and Oprah Winfrey is perfectly nauseating in a supporting part.
** out of ****

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Grapes of Wrath

In Dustbowl Oklahoma, the Joad family is forced off their land by foreclosure and seeks a new start in California with thousands of other migratory laborers only to find misery in the form of scarce, bottom of the barrel labor, crowded and impoverished camp sights, police intimidation, union suppression, disease, and death. John Ford's film version of John Steinbeck's epic populist novel is marked by Greg Toland's exceptional, unsullied cinematography, an iconic Henry Fonda performance, fine supporting work from Jane Darwell and John Carradine, and a tendency to sermonize.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Enemy

A depressed, lonely professor (Jake Gyllenhaal) rents a B grade movie and notices a stand-in actor who appears to be his doppelganger and decides to track the man down, eventually becoming involved a dangerous game of deceit and treachery. Denis Villeneuve's Enemy takes the slow burn approach, offering little dialogue and fine performances from Gyllenhaal and Sarah Gadon although this twisty, effective thriller is hurt somewhat by its lack of direction and ambiguities, especially in the concluding scene.
*** out of ****

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mark Twain

Using his upbringing in Hannibal, Missouri and experiences as both a riverboat captain and gold miner as resources for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and many of his other beloved works, Samuel Clemens would assume the moniker of Mark Twain and be hailed as one of the most recognized and respected authors of his time. Ken Burns' documentary on The Father of American Literature never really soars like it should and is perhaps a tad overlong, but benefits from Twain's spoken words (voiced by Kevin Conway) and appearances from Hal Holbrook (who has performed his Mark Twain Tonight! stage show for over 60 years) and Arthur Miller, though other Twain "experts" add very little.
*** out of ****

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Straight Story

Based on a true story, an elderly man from Laurens, Iowa (Richard Farnsworth) learns his estranged brother is sickly and decides to bury the hatchet and visit him in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. In poor health himself and unable to drive a motor vehicle, he opts to use his trusty John Deere mower as a means of transportation on the nearly 300 mile trek. The Straight Story is old fashioned. beautifully told, sentimental but sincere, and all the more of a wonder considering it is the work of David Lynch, who should be applauded for putting his eccentricities aside and plugging his talents into such a work. Farnsworth is exceptional, usually a memorable character actor, and here finding a genuine and quietly powerful role. The film has great local flavor and many unforgettable sequences, which include one that cannot be forgotten: the old man sharing a beer and his secret war time shame with another WWII veteran.
**** out of ****

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

On an 1850s Oregon homestead, the eldest of seven boys (Howard Keel) decides the time is right for marriage, takes his cart into town and comes home with a new, headstrong wife (Jane Powell). As the appalled bride gets the ragged house in order, the brothers become atwitter with restless excitement and seek out mates of their own. Stanley Donan's adaptation of the Broadway hit to notable for its phenomenal dance sequences which make wonderful use of the medium. Aside from that the story is paltry and the music forgettable, although Keel and Powell are endearing.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Big Eyes

A street artist (Christoph Waltz) impresses a single mother and aspiring artist (Amy Adams) with his tales of classical training in the great European cities and the two subsequently marry. When he is able successfully pass off her work as his own (paintings of subjects with oversized eyeballs) at a pub, the popularity of her work spreads like wildfire leading to great fame for him,  virtual enslavement for her, and eventual court case. Tim Burton's Big Eyes, an atypically straightforward film for the director and based on the story of Margaret Keane is stagnant, torpid, and never really gains its footing. The usually reliable Adams turns in an insipid performance portraying a bland and pathetic person while Waltz is preposterous and downright laughable as the heavy.
** out of ****

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Most Dangerous Game

A crazed Russian count (Leslie Banks) lives in almost total seclusion on a wooded island and, having tired from traditional gaming, patiently waits for shipwrecked visitors whom he can stalk and kill, his latest victim an apt adventurer (Joel McCrea). From the renowned and often filmed short story by Richard Connell and made by the same team who created King Kong (including producer Merian Cooper, director Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Fay Wray) on many of the same sets, The Most Dangerous Game is a well paced, scarily intense, top shelve B picture, containing fantastic interior and exterior staging, a great camp performance from Banks, and a perfect master shot.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, July 19, 2015

JFK

The American Experience two part docuseries on the retracted life, trials, and triumphs of the 35th President is occasionally enlightening while covering well trodden territory, but is lifted through the use of tremendous footage.  Further, it is refreshing that director Susan Bellows and writer Mark Zwonitzer decided to gloss over the assassination and focus largely on Jack's early life.
*** 1/2 out ****

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ida

A young woman (Agata Kulesza) studying to be a nun at a 1960s remote countryside Polish abbey is urged to visit her urbane aunt (Agata Trzebuchowska) , also a former ranking Communist Party member, who informs her that her parents were Jews murdered during the German occupation. Now, as the two make the journey to visit their gravesite, Ida (which she discovers is her birth name) must decide whether or not to continue down the religious path.  Pawel Pawlikowski's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film is an absorbing story told with intimacy and immediacy through strikingly beautiful photography and two resonating performances.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Missing Picture

Rithy Panh, a Cambodian national who escaped the Khmer Rouge as a teen and lost family and friends to the mass genocide needed to have some form of physical proof to capture the unthinkable atrocities, such as a snapshot. After much scouring and no such record to be found, Panh recreated the wretched conditions of a work camp with clay figures and used them to tell his harrowing story. The Missing Picture is an innovative form of storytelling, which also makes fine use of excellent footage but is crippled by Panh's obtuse and pretentious narration.
*** out of ****

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Lady Sings the Blues

Abused as a child and relegated to life in a brothel, a young woman finds refuge and success as a nightclub singer while taking solace in alcohol and narcotics. Based on the life of Billie Holliday, Lady Sings the Blues doesn't avoid the cliches and pitfalls of its musical biopic genre but Ross is pure and powerful in an exceptional starring performance in addition to surprising turns from Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Immigrant

A proud and stubborn Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) is rescued from deportation at Ellis Island by a charming pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and ensnared in a life of misery and degradation, with her quarantined sister and a circus performer (Jeremy Renner) her only glimmer of life. Cotillard is exceptional and an anchor to The Immigrant, and Phoenix, reuniting once more with director James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night) is quite good also, save for a concluding, revealing over the top speech. Renner is schmaltzy and the film's photography is perhaps overly polished, though still finely directed by Gray.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Unknown Known

Donald Rumsfeld discusses his lengthy political career, beginning as a Congressman in the early 60s, his first stint of Defense Secretary under Gerald Ford, and return to the post under George W. Bush where his controversial tenure is put under scrutiny. The Unnknown Known is not as revealing as The Fog of War, Errol Morris' Oscar winning documentary profile of Robert S. McNamara, another former Secretary of Defense, but is nonetheless compelling and another further demonstration of the director's abilities.
*** out of ****

Monday, July 13, 2015

'Round Midnight

The last days of a drug addicted, alcoholic, world weary saxophonist (real life jazzman Dexter Gordon) are spent abroad in Paris where he lives on a tight leash held by his manager and receives alms and friendship from an adoring local (Francois Cluzet). Bernard Tavernier's 'Round Midnight is a simple story, beautifully and gloomily constructed, with amazing musical sequences, a powerful performance from Gordon, and an empathetic one from Cluzet.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, July 12, 2015

7 Days in Hell

In the opening round of the 2001 Wimbledon Championships the world witnessed a grueling weeklong tennis bout between a bad boy fallen idol (Andy Samberg), an orphan taken in by Serena and Venus Williams'  family ("it was kind of like a reverse Blind Side") and a feeble minded rising star (Kit Harington) browbeaten by his domineering mother, model girlfriend, and Queen Elizabeth II. 7 Days in Hell is silly, outlandish, and amusing, told in fine mockumentary fashion with funny appearances by Michael Sheen, Will Forte, and Fred Armisen and also John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Serena Williams, and magician David Copperfield appearing as themselves, although the joke does begin to wear thin, even at a cool 40 minutes.
*** out of ****

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood's filming of the smash Broadway musical, which details the founding of The Four Seasons (the hit pop vocal group headed by Frankie Valli and comprised of a quartet of Jerseyan delinquents) is tepid material at best and compounded by uncharasmatic acting, forced drama, lifeless musical numbers, and a total lack of a resolution.
** out of ****

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Interview

A frustrated producer of a disdained, rough-hewn talk show (Seth Rogen) and his uncouth best friend/host (James Franco) find a chance for validation when it becomes clear that Kim Jong-un is a fan and wants to give an interview at his palace at Pyongyang. However, the CIA has different ideas and taps the boys into an assassination plot as no American has ever been able to get this close to the dictator before. The Interview runs way too long, goes for the kind of easy, stupid, and tiresome laughs that audiences have come to expect (and sadly embrace, in many cases) from this crew. Further, the movie isn't really worth all of the now forgotten hype and is pretty pathetic, even for a time waster. Franco is a particular dud, playing for laughs to poor results.
* 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Say Anything...

A directionless senior (John Cusack) wants nothing more out of life than to practice karate and woo the gorgeous, good natured, and seemingly unattainable valedictorian (Ione Skye). Cameron Crowe's Say Anything... is funny, innocent, intelligent and on an entirely different plane than most similar fare. Having never been much of a Cusack fan I have to admit that he boasts definite appeal here. Skye is absolutely adorable and John Mahoney is strong in a supporting role as her doting father.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Lego Movie

Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt), a completely average in every way Lego piece, is mistaken for a hero and charged to save the world against a hell bent dictator (voiced by Will Ferrell). The Lego Movie goes on a lot longer than it should, often panders to its audience with irritating segments, and contains action sequences that grow tiresome but has some authentic laughs, humorous voice work, and a truly funny physical cameo from Ferrell.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Short Term 12

At a reformatory for problematic youth, a dedicated counselor's (Brie Larson) painful past comes to the foray with the arrival of a similarly troubled teen. Short Term 12 is cut from the same cookie cutter mold that diminishes and decolorizes many indie movies and takes on a phony air beyond that. Larson tries too way hard in a role that garnered widespread acclaim.
** out of ****