Saturday, August 29, 2015

Homeland

(Spoilers Ahead. This whole show is a series of spoilers, so be forewarned)
Seasons 3 and 4
Season three picks up with Carrie being the subject of Senate Investigation following the catastrophic attack on CIA headquarters, Brody seeking asylum in South America, and his family grappling with the horrific act. The fourth season sees Carrie named station chief in Kabul where she is faced with a Benghazi-like invasion and a hostage situation involving her mentor Saul. Following the outlandish second outing, Homeland returned with an intense, exciting, though still nonsensical third season, with superfluous domestic scenes at the Brody household taking away from the focus of the show. The fourth series is somewhat lacking and, due to the "terror threat at home" nature of the program, loses something by being set almost entirely overseas. Rupert Friend shines in support.
Season 3: *** 1/2 out of ****
Season 4: *** out of ****

Season 2
Following the botched attempt on the Vice President's life, Brody is now learning the ropes as a freshman U.S. Congressman while Carrie, teaching English as a second language and recovering from her stint in the booby hatch, is contracted by the CIA to lend her expertise to an expedition in Beirut. As Abu Nazir moves his pawns into place for his next terrorist attack, Carrie and Brody's stars align once more, placing their careers and lives into imminent danger. It becomes clear that the high-wire act done so well during the first season cannot be maintained, and while all the pieces don't quite come crashing down, preposterous plotting  has seized the day. Clare Danes character, where she was so effective before, has become nearly intolerable, going into hysterics several times an episode. Damian Lewis is doing what he can, and I think he should be commended for going through some of the things they put his character through with a straight face. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the show is how insipid Mandy Patinkin's Saul has become and the addition of Rupert Friend adds very little, if anything to the series. Most of these complaints can be chalked up to the writing. How could anyone seriously expect the show to maintain its momementum? And while the leads still maintain rooting interest, the second season plays its cards way too fast and serves them up in ways we can't possibly accept.
** 1/2
sidenote: As the "Homeland" season finale concludes the shows I watch for the year, I feel obliged to comment on the disappointment of nearly every series I've followed this year, especially one's in their sophomore season ("Homeland", "Games of Thrones", "Downton Abbey", "Sherlock"). In what has been termed as a "Golden Age of Television", these and other fan favorites such as "Boardwalk Empire" and "Breaking Bad" make it seem like a low karat era.

Season 1
A Marine (Damian Lewis) is rescued after eight years of being held captive in an Iraqi compound, and returns home to much fanfare and great difficulty adjusting to domestic life. Meanwhile an ambitious, volatile, and surreptitiously bipolar CIA agent (Clare Danes), having been informed several months prior by an al-Qaeda bomb maker that an American POW has been turned, suspects the heralded Marine of being the conduit of the next terrorist plot against the United States. "Homeland" is an ingeniously plotted tightrope act, which seems doomed to fail but never looses its footing once. Developed from the Israeli series "Prisoners of War" by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, who take their unlikely story to an intense, sheerly believable level because they always prioritize the human elements. Ten years after his tremendous work on "Band of Brothers", Damian Lewis returns with another powerful performance in a uniquely American role. As the unorthodox agent running a one person operation, Clare Danes is excellent and has some heartbreaking, almost unbearable scenes later in the season. Mandy Patinkin also contributes tremendous, nuanced work as a veteran operative and mentor/counterbalance to Danes. The plot description for "Homeland" makes one think of something destined for a short-lived run on network television, but due to the intelligent and sensitive writing (I can't stress this enough) and its endearing, perfectly realized cast, the first season is something of a wonder.
****

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Most Violent Year

A proud, self-made foreign born business owner (Oscaar Isaacs) finds his crucial upcoming business deal thwarted by a series of truck hijackings, a government investigation into his books, and a loyal but calculating wife (Jessica Chastain) who remains insistent on the issue of retaliation. A Most Violent Year is gritty movie making from writer/director J.C. Chandor who adopts an enriched, spectacular color palette of films of a bygone era while telling a story that great urban filmmakers of the 1970s would have felt at home with but, like Chandor's other films (Margin Call, All is Lost) the slow burn style employed is alternately potent and dull. Isaacs is strong in a role where he perhaps channels too much of Pacinco, Chastain also is forceful in a somewhat diminished role, and Albert Brooks has a nice turn playing Isaacs' attorney.
*** out of ****

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Finding Vivian Maier

The story of a secretive spinster nanny to several Chicago families who, after her death in 2009, was revealed to be the capturer of over 100,000 polished photographs and has since become one of the most esteemed photographers in the world. Finding Vivian Maier begins with an intriguing story that successfully interweaves Maier's narrative and surreptitious lifework before becoming stagnant for much of its duration until it takes a dark and very satisfying final turn.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Two Days, One Night

A disconsolate mother and wife (Marion Cotillard) receives her walking papers at her factory job and is told by management the only way to retain her position is to rally a majority vote among her coworkers favoring her job retention over their yearly bonus. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Two Days, One Night is made in the esteemed Belgian brothers' trademarked stripped down, realistic style that normally works so well but here, with its repetitive and barebones plot line, makes the pacing seem glacial. However, if there ever was a compulsively watchable actress to cast in such a movie, it would be Cotillard, who nobly and subtly inhabits her role.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Frank

A would be musician (Domhnall Gleeson) rescues a suicidal keyboardist and falls in with the band, led by an inscrutable vocalist (Michael Fassbender) who never removes his oversized paper mache mask. Frank is yet another sterile little indie exercise, an excruciating, painfully unfunny film providing putrid performances (Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal included) and headache inducing songs, all the while purporting itself as a brilliant satire on the creative process.
No Stars out of ****

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Hardcore

When the daughter of a staunchly religious midwestern businessman (George C. Scott) goes missing on a bus trip to California, it is quickly revealed by the aid of a shifty P.I. (Peter Boyle) that she has fallen in with a circle of pornographers, and the shattered father decides to take it in his own hands to find her. Paul Schrader's Hardcore features a powerful performance of melancholic rage from Scott but the movie is continually off-putting (as it should be) and certain elements of the picture seem to work against each other.
*** out of ****

Monday, August 17, 2015

Night Will Fall

At the close of World War II, the British government assembled a team of filmmakers (which included Alfred Hitchock) to capture the liberation of several German concentration camps and document the atrocities committed there. Although the film faced financial difficulties in post production and the final product was never released, the footage has survived and the story of its circumstances is presented here. Night Will Fall is comprised of haunting, visceral footage, an informative story, and illuminating contributors, a few of whom that survived the ordeal.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Calvary

A humble and reputable Catholic pastor (Brendan Gleeson) hears confession from a troubled young man who claims he was abused by a priest as a child and vows to kill the good reverend in exactly a weeks time. With the threat of mortal violence hanging over his head, the cleric must tend to his distressed daughter (a product of his layman days), his dying dog, and the troubled flock of his rural Irish diocese. Reteaming with John Michael McDonagh following The Guard, Gleeson is absolutely tremendous in a powerful and nuance performance.  The film boasts outstanding direction and gorgeous photography even though much of the dialogue is irksome and tends towards self-righteousness.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Venus in Fur

An arrogant playwright (Mathieu Amalric) is about to lock the theater doors following a frustrating day of casting the female lead in his latest play when an disordered unwieldy blonde (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives to read. Following great protest and many tears, the director finally concedes and, after being astonished that she knows the script like the back of her hand and is a natural for the part, finds himself falling under her spell. Based on the NYC based play by David Ives (who drew on Leopold's von Sacher-Masoch's 19th century novel Venus in Furs) and reset in Paris by Roman Polanski, Venus in Fur is intelligent, funny, and alluring with great acting from Amalric and  
Seigner, the director's real life wife.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, August 10, 2015

Irrational Man

A college student (Emma Stone) is drawn towards the latest faculty newcomer at her idyllic Newport college: a brilliant, burned out, suicidal philosophy professor (Joaquin Phoenix) who stumbles across a perfect philanthropic murder plot which he sees as lifting him out of his existential funk. Woody Allen has explored similar themes before to more compelling ends (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point) here borrowing Hitchockian motifs (Strangers on a Train and even Shadow of a Doubt to a greater degree) and again explicitly citing Dostoevsky. Although not all of the ideas come together in the film, Stone strains to hit dramatic notes later on, and Phoenix surprisingly is off key when attempting to play the Allen type, and I find myself saying this whenever one of Woody's movies is panned (here likely the result of a recent tabloid resurgence), his films are still more engrossing than most of the other shit to come down the Hollywood pike.
*** out of ****

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Nymphomaniac (Vols. I and II)

A woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found beaten in an alley by a lonely stranger (Stellan Skarsgard) who takes her home, providing food and shelter, while she relays her promiscuous biography and her growing and alarming propensity for perilous sexual encounters. With over four exploitative, sadistic, explicit, dull, and uninvolving hours (and an even greater duration in a godforsaken director's cut), Nymphomaniac represents Lars von Trier at his boorish, pretentious worst, and features putrid acting from an embarrassed cast except for a strong though disturbing performance from von Trier's perpetual punching bag Gainsbourg.
1/2 * out of ****

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Virunga

A meager and underfunded though determined group of park rangers defend the gorilla inhabitants of their forested Congo terrain from poachers and other external forces that threaten their existence. This Academy Award nominated documentary depicts a fascinating story presented somewhat aloofly in a narrative that, considering its subject, surprisingly lacks urgency.
*** out of ****

Friday, August 7, 2015

Hannah Arendt

When Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israeli forces in Argentina and taken to Yagur to stand trial for war crimes, German Jew intellectual Hannah Arendt took a leave of absence from her teaching post  to cover the hearings for The New Yorker. Instead of the hateful, cunning monster most had painted in the press, Arendt viewed Eichmann as unassuming and even kindly, leading to her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt is thought provoking, academic filmmaking although its story is slight and would have benefitted from expounding. Barbara Sukowa is impressive in the title role and trial scenes including actual footage are effective.
*** out of ****

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Double

A government pencil pusher (Jesse Eisenberg) finds his life in free fall with no sign of solid ground when the latest hire at his grim agency turns out to be his perfect match in appearance and complete opposite in every other way. After his fresh and uniquely structured freshman outing Submarine, Richard Ayoade follows it up with this lifeless, uninspired, and somewhat muddled adaptation of a Dostoevsky story, which contains a strong dual performance from Eisenberg but totally wastes Mia Wasikowska in support.
** out of ****

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

As the IMF faces Congressional oversight and inclusion in the CIA, Ethan and friends are forced to thwart another threat of global domination, this time led by a crafty and ruthless British agent, a mysterious femme fatale, and a squad of lethal, once presumed dead operatives. M:I - Rogue Nation is a step back from its outstanding Brad Bird helmed predecessor with a lazy, formulaic script from writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, a weak villain in Sean Harris, and a downgrade from Paula Patton in the drone like Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson. The installment is not without its entertainment value with some exciting chase sequences, an affable principle cast, and a 53 year old Tom Cruise maintaining his signature bravado.
** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Southpaw

A Brooklyn orphan (Jake Gyllenhaal) sits undefeated atop the light heavyweight world with his  foster care sweetheart (Rachel McAdams) by his side until his temper and a tragic accident cost him everything forcing him to regroup, with the aid of a lowly, faithful trainer (Forest Whittaker), to win back the title and the thing that matters most in the world: his daughter. Southpaw seems like a 12 year old stayed up all night watching 8 Mile and The Rocky Marathon, wrote a screenplay, and invited his friends over to film it on his phone. Antoine Fuqua's punchless pugilistic saga isn't only packed to the gills with boxing and standard movie cliches, it is shockingly lacking in style and form, hurried to the point of sloppiness, and contains bout sequences that couldn't have been filmed with any more disinterest. The cast is either out of their element (McAdams, 50 Cent) or strong in roles that give them nothing to work with whatsoever (Forest Whitaker, Naomie Harris) and the usually reliable Gyllenhaal enters the ring with an impressive build and coughs up a lot of blood in the process but is surprisingly unconvincing as a slimshady.
* 1/2 out of ****

Monday, August 3, 2015

River's Edge

A high schooler strangles his girlfriend and fetches his friends to regard her unclothed, unburied body on the shielded river bank who in turn respond with horror or disinterest and ultimately decide to aid in concealing the crime. River's Edge is a bizarre, tragic, genre bending, purportedly true story featuring an amusingly manic Crispin Glover, a surprisingly appealing Keanu Reeves, and an oddly affecting Dennis Hopper.
*** out of ****

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Umberto D

A pensioner lives alone in his bare one room apartment, his little dog his only companion with occasional visits from a pregnant teen maid. After losing then retrieving his partner, desolation grows and he considers suicide as his best option. Filmed in the tradition of Italian Neorealism Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D is a sparse, doleful, observant, and beautifully filmed character study featuring a brilliant performance from nonactor Carlo Battisti.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

As Caesar and his army of super apes set up their forested encampment, both exterior threats from the surviving human populace and dissension within his own ranks threaten to destroy their civilization. I went into this Apes with the same low expectations as I went into its predecessor, and while they were far exceeded by that first reboot, here I feel I at least got my money's worth with the considerable visuals and engaging motion captured primates outweighing the silly human story, outlandish plot developments, and over the top acting.
*** out of ****

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 ****