Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Tale of Winter

A single mother (Charlotte Very) has a fling with a chef she meets while on vacation. Five years later, the two have completely lost touch while she raises his child. However, she continues to carry an unwavering torch for him despite the fact that she has two eligible men vying for her affection. A Tale of Winter is the talky, observant, and well realized second entry in Eric Rohmer’s Four Seasons series, although its impulsive main character is reasonably off-putting.
*** out of ****

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Searchers

A Confederate soldier (John Wayne) with an intense hatred of Indians and whose whereabouts after the close of the war have remained mysterious, finally returns home to the family ranch after several years. There he helps ward off a Comanche attack which leaves several of his family members dead and his niece (Natalie Wood) kidnapped. Setting off with his nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) on an expansive, years long search, when they finally track down the girl it appears she has adopted the ways of her kidnappers and becomes a target for her maddened uncle. One of the most regarded of Westerns by John Ford, the genre’s most revered architect, The Searchers is bold and uncompromising, both in presentation and in Wayne’s iconic performance. The film boasts magnificent photography, incredible location shooting, a colorful cast of supporters, and that unforgettable final shot.
**** out of ****

Princess Mononoke

In feudal Japan, a young warrior saves his village from a demonic presence, which taints his arm giving him herculean powers but slowly withers away his life force. Searching for a cure, he teams up with the title noblewoman and leads a battle against a mining company who has been wreaking havoc on the land. Miyazaki’s Prince Mononoke is the expected blend of fantasy and parable, a strange, silly film meant to be taken seriously as an eco-allegory, but replete with wondrous, imaginative visuals.
*** out of ****

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Earrings of Madame de...

In 19th Century France, a pair of earrings makes their way from an indebted madam (Danielle Darrieux) to a pawnbroker back to her severe military husband (Charles Boyer) to his mistress and then a charming Italian diplomat (renowned Italian director Vittorio de Sica) before coming around full circle. Max Ophuls stylistic masterpiece is notable for its remarkable, almost unfathomable tracking shots, the performances of Darrieux, Boyer, and de Sica and a memorable ending.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Schindler's List

As Polish Jews are herded into the Krakow ghetto at the onset of World War II, a German entrepreneur and member of the Nazi Party (Liam Neeson) begins employing them as a source of cheap labor with the assistance of a Semitic accountant (Ben Kingsley). Increasingly, as his conscience is stimulated, he views his factory as a refuge from concentration camps and certain death and begins employing as many workers as possible while outwitting party officials, including a sadistic, mentally unstable commandant (Ralph Fiennes) whom he must keep in his corner. Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is a triumph on every level, from its brilliant, graphic, empathetic script by Steven Zaillian (from Thomas Keneally), superlative, impeccably lit cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, and the performances from Neeson (one he’s never truly been able to live up to), Kingsley, and an absolutely frightening Fiennes.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Nashville

In the midst of a Presidential Primary, the lives of no less than two dozen disparate people gather in Music City to organize, attend and perform at a musical rally in Robert Altman’s satirical, unconventional pastiche of American life. Nashville is impeccably edited and a complete and often heartbreaking knockout once you get in sync with its uncommon tempo. The film is filled with many memorable performances with Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Karen Black, and Henry Gibson rushing to mind first, and there is the added joy of watching most of the cast sing songs they generally composed themselves.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men

SPOILERS abound. Again, its hard to write about a serial without discussing the plot.
Season 7, Parts 1 & 2 (2014, 2015)
As the 60s fade and the 70s are ushered in, Don stares down another failed marriage, termination from his partnership, and his continuing, wayward calling existential crisis as SC&P faces consolidation into advertising juggernaut McCann Erickson. The final season of Mad Men travels down its own path, moving at its own speed, unconcerned with sensationalism, histrionics and easy resolutions, and providing its characters with deserving, surprisingly uncynical, and even tender endings. While so many shows seem to lose steam, spinning their wheels long after ideas or interest has run out, Matthew Weiner’s unprecedented series remained continually assured, surprising, intelligent, and engaging, a glowing example of how good television can be.
**** out of ****

Season 6 (2013)
It is a tumultuous 1968 and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce finds itself chasing several major accounts while being party to a major merger. Pete Campbell finds himself several outrageous entanglements, one involving his mother and a new mystery man at the agency. Peggy finds her stock rising, yet still subject to the whims of the male colleagues, and Don continues his tumble into the abyss, engaging in a tryst with a neighbor that results in what may be his ultimate low point. What can be said about Mad Men that hasn't already been said. This latest season is a continuation of excellence that hasn't wavered since its foundation. All the excellent elements (acting, story, production values, etc.) are still intact and the addition of James Wolk playing Bob Benson, another charming, alliteratively named abstruse ad man adds some more fun to the proceedings. Watching this season, I realized how nice it is to be able to watch a show without worrying about its quality, knowing it will be great, and sitting back to enjoy the fall.
**** out of ****

Season 5 (2012)
Its 1966 and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has, quite quickly, revealed the monster it has become and how its depravity knows no bounds in the efforts seal a Jaguar clientele. Don continues his surprisingly faithful and seemingly empty marriage to Megan, Roger trips on LSD, Pete pursues an acquaintance's fragile spouse, Peggy reaches the end of her rope, as does Lane in a more literal sense following financial straits. After a long wait, the most brilliant series on television returns with a dark and brutal season as the audience along with the characters seem to get kicked in the teeth on a weekly basis. From the larger happenings discussed above to smaller ones, such as Paul Kinsey's pathetic return to Betty's weight problems, the sense of melancholy and longing seems deeper than ever. The cast is excellent once again. I liked where they took Peggy and Joan's stories this year, and Jared Harris was remarkable in where he was able to take his character throughout his run. In Season 5, Matthew Weiner gets closer to the heart (or lack thereof) of his characters and involves us once more in a sad and sinuous journey.
**** out of ****

Season 4 (2010)
1964 is coming to a close and Sterling, Cooper, Draper, and Pryce is struggling to take off. After bungling an interview with the New York Times, recently divorced Don Draper begins a decline where he sees the death of his friend in California, struggles with his drinking, and faces more problems with his secret identity. Peggy, Pete, and Joan face discontent at work while Roger's attitude towards a major client may just bring down the entire agency. Season 4 of Mad Men is a continuance of excellence for a show that started off wonderful and somehow seems to constantly get better. The regulars shine as bright as ever and there are some humorous new additions to the cast including a couple of buffoons in creative and an ambitious executive at a rival agency. Season 4 helps prove that television can be literate and entertaining at the same time and that most other shows aren't even trying.
**** out of ****

Season 3 (2009)
It's 1963 and the Brits have invaded Sterling Cooper. Shaking up management and making changes throughout the company, Pete Campbell and Ken Cosgrove are thrown into competition for the Account Manager Position. Don has acquired the desirable Hilton account but it may be more trouble than its worth. On the home front, his father-in-law comes to live with his family, a new baby has arrived, and an older gentlemen causes Betty to rethink their continually troubled union. Then, that sad fateful day in late November arrives when the world stops and reflects on the great tragedy that has befallen them. Season 3 of Mad Men continues the elegant melancholic brilliance that was established in the first two seasons. With pacing that is both leisurely and thoroughly exciting, Mad Men keeps raising the bar for television excellence. Matthew Weiner and his staff keep writing wonderful dialogue and situations and all the great actors, lead by the enigmatic John Hamm continue to wow as well.
**** out of ****

Season 2 (2008)

The second season of Mad Men picks up in the smoky and booze filled corridors of Sterling Cooper in the spring of 1962 with historical moon orbits, devastating plane crashes, high profile celebrity suicides, and the threat of nuclear war on the loom. As for the members of Sterling Cooper, a new executive will offer lofty promises, cost a tenured and liked exec his job, and possibly jeopardize the entire company for the sake of self promotion. Peggy Olson's career has skyrocketed while in her free time she reflects on the repercussions of her surprise pregnancy and has made the acquaintance of a young visiting priest. Ms. Halloway has become happily engaged but is somewhat discontented with her role at the office. Harry Crane has been made the head of the newly formed television department, Paul Kinsey has become involved in social activism with his new girlfriend, and Pete Campbell has found a way to capitalize on a family tragedy while struggling to conceive a child with his wife. Don Draper's affair with an older woman will lead to a separation from his wife, serve as an inspiration for boss Roger Sterling to leave his, and cause Don to head to California to do some soul searching which may lead to some answers regarding his mysterious past. Mad Men continues its excellency with wonderfully realized storylines and dialogue, while getting to the core of the discontent of its characters who seemingly have everything but who are still somehow empty.
**** out of ****

Season 1 (2007)

"How could anyone be unhappy with all of this"
So says Don Draper, the debonair advertising executive for Sterling Cooper, one of the most successful firms on Madison Avenue. Yet under the surface of the characters on Mad Men, the brilliant series by Matthew Weiner, lies a melancholy and a desire for something other than the items they superficially promote. With the smell of change in the air, Sterling Cooper's executives are something of a dying breed as they drink, smoke, engage in infidelities, and occasionally put in some work hours and draw in clients while the women wish to succeed on their own but seem hopelessly dependent on men in a male dominated world. At the top sits Draper (Jon Hamm), a natural at his job and a good family man as well. Regardless, his beautiful wife (January Jones) seems unhappy, has childish tendencies, and has recently been placed in psychotherapy. He doesn't seem contented, and sees his way into the arms of a Greenwich village woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) who hangs around beatniks. Also, developments occur that suggest that he may not be who he says he is. Then there is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) the perky and intelligent secretary with greater ambitions but seems to fall prey to the advances of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the snaky junior executive who will stop at nothing for self-advancement. Overseeing are the partners Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse), the former more concerned with boozing and womanizing and the latter a pragmatist and seemingly straight and narrow kind of guy. Mad Men is a show that is intimately familiar with its time and setting, and it shows in the resulting period detail. The actors are wonderfully cast and believable in their roles. It is brilliantly conceived and intelligently written and sets the bar for what primetime television should be.
**** out of ****

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Panic in Needle Park

After being dumped by her scumbag boyfriend and procuring an abortion, a na├»ve young woman (Kitty Winn) takes up with a heroin addicted street hustler (Al Pacino) who hangs out in the titularly dubbed Upper West Side neighborhood where other addicts congregate. Soon she herself is using, whoring herself out, and fighting drug charges with her new beau. Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, with a screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne from a novel by James Mills, seems to really know and understand its urban junkie turf, but suffers from its own persistence at realism and grows incredibly wearisome after a while. Pacino is strong and completely credible in his debut leading screen performance and Winn, unfortunately, is not.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The lives, exploits, heartaches, and achievements of Theodore Roosevelt, his fifth cousin Franklin, and his wife Eleanor (also Teddy’s niece) as the unprecedented political first family traverses early 20th Century politics in such ranging affairs as the building of the Panama Canal, the battle against corporate greed, the creation of the National Park System, the entry into World War I, The Great Depression, The New Deal, Civil Rights, and World War II among others told in this expansive documentary. The Roosevelts: An Intimate History is undoubtedly a passion project of Ken Burns and while certain aspects of the telling are less intriguing than others, there are no changes in the esteemed documentarian’s style, voice actors Paul Giamatti (as Teddy) and Meryl Streep (Eleanor Roosevelt) are wrong for their roles, and the series is long by perhaps an episode, it is still exemplary and even exciting filmmaking.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, May 15, 2015

Awakenings

A lonely neurologist (Robin Williams) takes a job at a Bronx psychiatric hospital to care for catatonic patients who suffered from an encephalitis outbreak during the Great Depression. After discovering signs of life still apparent in his patients and developing a bond with a man entranced since childhood (Robert De Niro), he begins administering test dosages of L-DOPA and once thought hopeless cases begin to reawaken. Penny Marshall’s Awakenings, based on the true life work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, is fascinating in its early stages by eventually spins its wheels and is tarnished by a feeling cuing soundtrack and an unfounded romantic subplot involving Penelope Ann Miller. Williams and De Niro, nonetheless, are extraordinary in some of the finest work of their careers and Julie Kavner and John Heard have great turns in support.
*** out of ****

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Juliet of the Spirits

A woman totally dependent on her disloyal husband comes to terms with her situation and begins to gain independence as dreams, memory, and reality all begin to merge. Federico Fellini’s first feature length foray into color, and segue into the fantastical, carnivalesque films of his later career is a bizarre, trippy, and mostly plotless journey into the subconscious told with brilliant direction and radiant color and imagery. Fellini’s wife, Giuleietta Masina, shines in the lead role.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Haunted by the death of his wife and daughter, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) ambles alone through the barren desert wasteland, battling roving gangs of vile thugs and insanity. He is soon abducted by the minions of Immortan Joe, a totalitarian ruler who reigns cruelly over his pathetic people, and held captive in his canyon fortress where is blood is used as fuel for anemic soldiers. When a female warlord (Charlize Theron) escapes in a diesel tanker with five of the King’s wives, Max is strapped to the handlebars of his parasite’s (Nicholas Hoult) bike, one of scores of vehicles in hot pursuit. George Miller’s long gestating sequel to his Mad Max trilogy is most akin to TheRoad Warrior, the second entry: a high octane, heart pumping, imaginative, disorienting two hour chase movie with only the briefest of pauses for air. Miller remains faithful to his vision and it was nice to see a continuation of the saga rather than a reboot, although a Mel cameo would have been welcomed and deserved. Hardy is in Bane mode once more, but is effective nonetheless and Theron and Hoult are strong in secondary roles.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Neighbors

A young couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) have just settled into their roles as parents when a rowdy fraternity moves in next door (they burned down their previous house, the first offense against the university’s three strike policy). After ingratiating themselves with their new neighbors and their hunky leader (Zac Efron), they are soon at war when the fratboys learn the couple has phoned the police on them during one of their all night ragers. Neighbors is more of the same old same old boring bullshit, a brand of film that ceased being funny years ago but continues to roll off of the Apatow assembly line. The film consists of a generously estimated 1.5 laughs during its excruciating duration. 
* 1/2 out of ****

Monday, May 11, 2015

Draft Day

As the experts and fans buzz with excitement on the morning of the NFL draft, the GM of the Cleveland Browns (Kevin Costner), having just weathered another losing season, must decide what to do with his #7 pick while contending with a pregnant assistant (Jennifer Garner), an impatient owner (Frank Langella) fed up with the starting quarterback, a fiery head coach unwilling to train a rookie QB, the death of his father, a hometown legend who he’d previously fired, and a tremulous trade that offers the number one pick but threatens to sink the franchise. Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day is uninspired, painfully unfunny, and preposterous in its resolution with Costner the only glimmer of light in an otherwise dismal production.
** out of ****

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Still Alice

A celebrated linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) receives an Early Onset Dementia diagnosis and, along with her supportive family, must cope with her rapidly deteriorating mental state. Still Alice is no better than a disease of the week made for TV movie, a shameless Oscar bait (which copped Moore a trophy for one of her least deserving performances) where there is absolutely nothing going on in terms of plot besides a woman suffering from Alzheimer's. Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, and Kate Bosworth bring little to the table in supporting roles.
** out of ****

Friday, May 8, 2015

Obvious Child

A would be stand-up comic (Jenny Slate) has the rug pulled out from her and must face the harsh realities of adulthood when she is successively dumped by her boyfriend, laid off from her job at a bookstore, and left with an unwanted pregnancy, the result of a one night stand. Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child comes in at a cool clip and has some funny and even poignant moments but Slate’s raunchy, foul mouthed humor is off-putting and the film is decidedly one-sided on its central abortion issue. David Cross is funny in an unnecessary cameo and Paul Simon’s title song is put to good use during a memorable sequence.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Marvin's Room

A lonely spinster (Diane Keaton) who has cared for her infirmed father (Hume Cronyn) for many years is given a leukemia diagnosis. Reluctantly she calls her estranged sister in Ohio (Meryl Streep), a single mother whose mentally unstable son (Leonardo DiCaprio) has just torched their home,  to travel to Florida to perform the necessary tests. When the boy does in fact prove to be a match, the newly formed, distinctive bond between nephew and aunt reopens old wounds between the sisters and gradually leads them down the path of conciliation. From Scott McPherson’s play, Marvin’s Room is  warmhearted and funny, a unique take on both the disease and dysfunctional family movie. Keaton and Streep are outstanding, Leo shines in an amusing and challenging role, and Robert De Niro, Dan Hedaya, and especially Gwen Verdon are hilarious in supporting performances.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Henry V

After bearing insult from King Charles of France, King Henry V galvanizes his outnumbered troops and leads them into glorious victory in the Battle of Agincourt. For his directorial debut and only 29 years old at the time, Kenneth Branagh also wrote and starred in this gritty and captivating Shakespearean adaptation and does stellar work both in front of and behind the camera, with all culminating is the moving and absolutely riveting St. Crispin’s Day Speech. The film is somewhat marred by Derek Jacobi’s anachronistic narration, which plays like a Monty Python sketch, and as for the climactic battle, it serves more as a digression, leaving us longing for the resplendent, powerfully conveyed dialogue.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Easy Money

A business school student (Joel Kinnaman) drives a cab to make ends meet. When he falls for an uptown girl, he is drawn into a life of crime to maintain his status, with his fate intertwining with that of two men: a fugitive coke dealer and the mafia hit man sent to kill him. Swedish export Easy Money offers some exciting action sequences and a strong lead performance from Kinnaman (who is odd to see speak his native language after having viewed him in American TV and movies) but its simple and pronounced plot is blown out of proportion with soppy side stories thrown in for poor effect.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ex Machina

A gifted programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) for a Google-like corporation wins a company coding contest and is flown to the wooded, mountainous , state of the art compound for what is ostensibly a week long getaway with the brilliant, reclusive, and hostile CEO (Oscar Isaac). In actuality, the contestant has been summoned for a series of meetings with a highly cognizant female form of artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander), a Turing test to determine whether the cyborg can be viewed as indistinguishable from a human being. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is sleek, intelligent sci-fi featuring strong performances from Gleeson and Isaac (both stars of the upcoming Star Wars movies) and quite a remarkable and easily overlooked one from Vikander, but the film lacks immediacy or a sense of urgency and the ongoings are fairly obvious.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, May 1, 2015

Q & A

A revered, gruff, and brutal NYC detective (Nick Nolte) murders a drug dealer, without warning, outside a night club and plants a gun on the victim. A green assistant district attorney (Timothy Hutton) is summoned in the wee hours of the morning into the D.A.’s office and is given strict instructions to gloss over the inquiry and recommend no charges be filed. Unable to turn away from the detective’s glaring guilt, he conducts a thorough investigation putting himself in harm’s way, which is compacted even further when he learns his ex-girlfriend(Jenny Lumet) has become involved with the case’s chief witness (Armand Assante). Q & A is a harsh, gritty, and compromising effort from Sidney Lumet, once more tackling prejudice and New York City police corruption. The film works best when sticking to its main plotline and just gets bizarre when focusing on its side stories. Hutton is effective in an unremarkable role and Nolte is spellbinding as the boundless, ruthless heel.

*** out of ****

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hoop Dreams

The triumphs and (mostly) heartaches of two inner city Chicagoan youths, standouts on the basketball court, who are recruited to a renowned suburban parochial school. Filmed over the course of five years with miles upon miles of footage, Hoop Dreams, the collaborative effort of Steve James and Frederick Marx is epic documentary filmmaking at its most empathetic, with lovable, heartbreaking subjects, keen social insights, great moments of drama and suspense, and a colorful range of supporting characters.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Six Degrees of Separation

An eloquent, impoverished, black homosexual street hustler (Will Smith), claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier, insinuates himself into the lives of a snobbish Upper Eastside couple (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) who are at first charmed, then repelled when his ruse is made apparent, and again delighted to have the experience as an anecdote for social gatherings. John Guare’s adaptation of his own class comedy stageplay takes an irritating comic tone which shifts into more serious fare and gives the film weight. Fred Schepisi overdirects in the hopes of opening the material up for the screen, although the film does featuring some outstanding exterior visuals of the city. Sutherland and Channing (an Oscar nominee) are irritating and off-putting, probably by design, and Smith is surprisingly quite good in this odd early career acting choice.
** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

A vibrant convict (Jack Nicholson), seeking reprieve from the work farm, feigns mental illness and inspires enthusiasm and rebellion among his fellow downtrodden, emasculated patients at the state hospital, all victims of Big Nurse’s (Louise Fletcher) icily calculated control. Of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s many achievements, foremost is its ability to capture audience attention so completely, be it your first time viewing or your fifteenth. Though drastically different in tone from Ken Kesey’s drug induced first hand fiction, supremely on display are Milos Forman’s deft directorial abilities, the quintessential Jack performance, Fletcher as the perfect foil, a superbly chosen supporting cast, Haskell Wexler’s erudite cinematography, all adding up to an enduring fable on the testament of the human spirit. 
**** out of ****

Monday, April 27, 2015

Into the Wild

In 1992 Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), an intelligent, affable recent college graduate hailing from a well to do family, quietly and completely exited his life, abandoned his car and all possessions, and set off to explore the wilderness of the Western continent with the Alaskan interior in mind as his final destination. As he encounters an array of people and terrains he ambles along contentedly to a lonesome and tragic demise. Jon Krakauer’s fascinating, journalistic account of McCandless’s journey is hampered by director and book adapter Sean Penn’s pseudo-documentary structure which serves to somewhat distance the viewer from the story. The scenery, however, is spectacular and Penn does try diligently to remain faithful to the book. Hirsch gives it his all but doesn’t really have the chops to match his will, though he is given wonderful support from Hal Holbrook, Cathy Keener, and Vince Vaughn. Lastly, the Eddie Vedder soundtrack grows awfully wearisome and mundane.
*** out of ****