Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interstellar

As a modern day Dust Bowl threatens to starve and suffocate the human race, an ex-fighter pilot, first-rate engineer, and discontented farmer (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon and is swiftly commissioned to lead a deadly, top secret NASA mission that aims to journey through a wormhole in search of a new home for the species. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar plays as intriguing science fiction and a palpable family drama for roughly half its running time before succumbing to constant and inane scientific conjecture, egregiously overt references to 2001, and its sheer length which could have easily been pared down. McConaughey is strong, Anne Hathaway is mercifully dialed down, and several late arriving big named cameos serve merely as distractions.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Ruling Class

Following the unfortunate role-playing related death of a prominent British Lord, his considerate estate is passed to his mentally disturbed progeny (Peter O'Toole) who thinks himself the second coming of Jesus Christ, all to the chagrin of his stodgy family who schemes to see his inheritance reappropriated. From Peter Barnes play, The Ruling Class is bizarre, outlandish fun to a point, boasting a virtuoso O'Toole performance, but is overlong, stagy, and even obnoxious as it eventually outstays its welcome.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fury

A rough-hewn tank crew, together since the beginning of World War II and now in its final days, loses their spotter in battle and reigns in his greenhorn replacement (Logan Lerman) who is soon taken under the wing of their stoic commander (Brad Pitt) and eventually by the rest of the tight-kit lot. When their vehicle breaks down with a German brigade steadily bearing down upon them, the brothers-in-arms face the ultimate scenario of fight or flight. Fury is intense and brutal filmmaking from David Ayer, who departs his familiar streets of Los Angeles for the blood soaked and mud caked battlefields of the European front and crafts an intelligent, powerful war film from material which could easily have come off as hackneyed and timeworn. Pitt, save for a few scenes that strain for effect be it for drama or shock value, delivers a visceral performance, one of his finestand the rest of the actors comprising his tank crew range from entertaining (Jon Bernthal, Michael Pena) to surprisingly commanding (Shia LaBeouf, Lerman).
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Nightcrawler

A creepy, business minded sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal) stumbles upon the scene of an accident on the L.A. freeway, is taken by the freelance "nightcrawlers" who sell their filmed bloody wares to the local TV news station, and decides to try his hand at the trade, quickly finding success as he tampers with the various crime scenes and develops a relationship with an ex-news anchor (Rene Russo) currently overseeing the city's lowest rated news program. Dan Gilroy's directorial debut is a wry, darkly disturbing, and unique film sporting an odd and finely tuned performance from Gyllenhaal. It's also nice to see Russo back in a distinctly commanding turn with both actors receiving fine support from Bill Paxton, as one of Jake's slimy rivals and Riz Ahmed as his reluctant assistant.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera

The deed to the illustrious Paris Opera House has just changed hands with a key piece of knowledge going undisclosed: the menacing presence of the titular character (Lon Chaney), who resides in the building's catacombs where he once was tortured and disfigured and patronizes the career of his beloved understudy (Mary Philbin) from his reserved and undisturbed balcony seat. For me, Carl Laemmle's presentation of Victor Hugo's often recycled novel is all about the Phantom's unmasking, both the protracted tension leading up to the moment and the moment itself, an abrupt, jarring closeup of Chaney's hideous, contorted, and heavily made up visage. Chaney's performing highlights the film, especially during a floridly colored ballroom scene followed by a rooftop sequence where he watches over his adored and her ineffectual lover. The Phantom of the Opera isn't necessarily chilling or scary but it provides a nice throwback alternative to those only familiar with Andrew Lloyd Webber's popular musical interpretation. 
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Fog

A century after the founders of a coastal fishing village thwarted a harbor bound ship, plunging all of its leprosy plagued shipmates to their demise, a dense haze carrying the ghosts of the victims envelops the village, seeking a bloody retribution on all of the guilty's remaining descendants. John Carpenter's The Fog is a relentlessly stupid ghost story, but well made and with some genuine scares that help offset other cheesed-out elements of the production.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Drop

A simpleton (Tom Hardy) tends bar for his oafish cousin's (James Gandolfini) hole in the wall establishment which fronts as a drop site for laundered mob money, along with several similar locations in its Brooklyn neighborhood. When a staged robbery attracts the attention of both law enforcement and the pub's Russian mafia backers, the barkeep must play a delicate balancing act while simultaneously dealing with a psychopath (Matthias Schoenaerts) who threatens both his new lady friend (Noomi Rapace) and recently acquired pit bull. From a short story and screenplay from Dennis Lehane, who leaves the streets of Boston but tries to salvage much of his material that worked in past successes (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone), The Drop is at once a gritty crime story, a romantic comedy, and underdog story that shows promise for a spell but ultimately suffers from its tonal identity crisis, awkward dialogue, plotting and stylistic choices, and a laughable villainous presence from Schoenaerts. Tom Hardy's performance is a highlight and departure from his usual offerings and Rapace, John Ortiz, and James Gandolfini (in his final performance) do their best with underdeveloped characters.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl

An easygoing, unemployed writer (Ben Affleck), recently moved back to his suburban Missouri home from the big city and living off the fruit of his cold, famed wife's (Rosamund Pike) trust fund, ventures out one morning and returns to find her vanished with only a few scant clues remaining. As the investigation heats up and takes on national media attention, he becomes the central suspect in the case, while passages from his wife's diary offer insight into their complicated marriage and hints as to what happened in the time leading up to her disappearance. Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own bestselling novel, Gone Girl is a serpentine, dressed up dime novel mystery that doesn't really warrant or benefit from David Fincher's stylish, trademarked treatment. Affleck and Pike are effective enough in their roles, but never really soar, and receive sturdy support from Kim Dickens as a lead investigator, Carrie Coon as Affleck's concerned twin sister, Neil Patrick Harris as Pike's creepy and successful stalker, and Tyler Perry, surprisingly, as a high profile attorney who takes on the case. Despite my issues with the material and also the fact that its twists aren't as shocking as many would lead you to believe, Gone Girl still makes cogent points on marriage and media manipulation, contains several memorable sequences (a wildly bloody one in particular I still can't get out of my head), and thankfully opts for a meaningful, anticlimactic finale that may send you spouting profanities at the screen as it did several people at my screening.
** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mr. Arkadin

The words of a dying man lead a shifty American (Robert Arden) to a peculiar European millionaire (Orson Welles) who hires him to investigate his hazy past. Like many of Welles' films, Mr. Arkadin (also know as Confidential Report) was assembled into several different versions. I elected to watch the comprehensive edition on a recent Criterion treatment, the distributor's suggested version and, despite some bad dubbing and rugged cutting, the best as far as I could tell. Arkadin also bears similarity in plotting, in large ways and small, to its auteur's other films: a flashback structure with the protagonist learning the truth about a secretive billionaire (Citizen Kane), a postwar European set black market story (The Third Man), and even the late appearance of assured Katina Paxinou reminded me of Marlene Dietrich's cameo in Touch of Evil. However, despite the similarities to these classics, Mr. Arkadin isn't plotted nearly as well and Arden is dreadful in the lead, but the film features some fine camerawork and Welles is a lot of fun in the title role.
** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

Glacier National Park, Montana
Beginning with John Muir's dream of seeing his beloved Yosemite protected, continuing with Theodore Roosevelt's follow through using presidential action to preserve pristine natural monuments around the country, and concluding with controversial decisions to protect vast amounts of Alaskan wilderness in the 1970s, while covering a multitudinous number of stories from many of our 59 federally protected parks in the years in between, The National Parks is another ambitious, informative, and patriotic work from documentarian Ken Burns. As most of Burns' films on extensive topics have a habit of doing, The National Parks produces a "star" here in the form of Shelton Johnson, an eloquent Yosemite Park Ranger from humble beginnings on the urban landscape of Detroit. Aside from Shelton, however, the talking heads are surprisingly lackluster, perhaps because there's only so much to be said about the majesty of these wonders that already speak for themselves, especially when you've had the privilege to have seen some of them in person.  Nonetheless the historical aspects and footage are excellent, which is par for the course in a Burns' film, and despite a few plodding middle episodes, the opening and concluding segments are astounding.
*** out of ****

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

A dull teacher (Peter O'Toole) finds unexpected love with a chorus girl (Petula Clark) while on vacation in the Greek isles and returns with a new attitude to his all boys British preparatory school where he was once the scourge of his students. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the second screen adaptation of James Hilton's novel, and although O'Toole is superb and Clark is sweet, this simple story is so overblown and compounded by a needless and saccharine musical treatment.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

How to Steal a Million

The daughter of an art forger (Audrey Hepburn) resolves to steal her father's product, a replica statue of Cellini's Venus on display at a renowned Paris gallery, in order to protect his reputation when he fears analysis will out him as a fraud. To achieve her goal, she enlists the help of police detective posing as a burglar (Peter O'Toole) who can't help but fall for his lovely target. William Wyler's How to Steal a Million is an incredulous and uninspired romantic comedy invigorated by the aid of its charismatic stars and an entertaining heist sequence.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Matewan

When the coal miners of a small West Virginia town decide to strike, union forces and the mining company come to an explosive and violent head in this patchwork recreation of real life events from 1920. John Sayles' Matewan is a thoughtful, powerful, meditative, and humanistic pro-labor portrait enhanced even further by the stunning Haskell Wexler photography and a profusion of supporting performances, headlined by Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and James Earl Jones.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Blues

The Blues is an seven part series presented by several accomplished filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Charles Burnett, Mike Figgis, and Clint Eastwood who document the distinct American art form from its origins in West Africa which made its way through the slave trade to the Mississippi Delta and continuing right up until the present day. Each episode takes a different approach on the same subject, which tends to grow redundant as the series progresses, but is worth watching for its wealth of performances which range from B.B. King, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Dr. John, and Van Morrison in addition to the amazing archival footage. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Trouble with Harry

Several members of a scenic Vermont town stumble upon a corpse in the woods, each with different motives and suggestions for disposing of it. The Trouble with Harry is light and playful, and isn't exactly what you'd expect from an Alfred Hitchcock film. However while many of his classic offerings tap into his fears and obsessions, perhaps this work is the one most attuned to his playful, mischievous personality. It also features bucolic Vermont location shooting and fun early performances from a young Shirley MacLaine and Edmund Gwenn of Miracle on 34th Street fame. While the wrap-up is a little too neat and satisfying, there are many sincere laughs to be had throughout the rest of its duration.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Basic Instinct

Several murders in the San Francisco area follow the same pattern as the killings in the erotic novels of a  steamy blonde author (Sharon Stone) who lures a police detective (Michael Douglas) on the case who may be in way too deep for his own good. Basic Instinct is a sleek, often dumb, occasionally intelligent thriller whose many sex scenes are as often unappealing as they are provocative. Stone delivers a soundly confident performance, Douglas' is a mixed bag as he seems to struggle with the heated scenes, and every story angle or scene spotlighting Jeanne Tripplehorn is completely awful. Paul Verhoeven's film attempts to channel classic San Fran movies such as Vertigo and Bullitt, and does so successfully, and then offers a conclusion that is supposed to end things on an ambiguous note, that comes off as more idiotic than anything.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Crimes and Misdemeanors

An esteemed ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) is thrust into a crisis when his needy mistress (Anjelica Huston) threatens to expose their affair to his loving wife, an act of desperation that pushes him to his moral brink. In separate developments, a struggling documentarian (Woody Allen) takes on much needed work from his insufferable, far more successful brother-in-law (Alan Alda) who gradually steals away his editor and girl of his dreams (Mia Farrow). With Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen offers not one but two great movies, one tragic and thought provoking, the other highly comedic, which despite a partially intersecting finale, do not exist solely and stupidly for the sake of one another as in many similarly plotted modern movies. Landau has the role of a lifetime and Allen and Alda are absolutely hysterical as bitter rivals.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Red River

While dreaming of owning a booming cattle ranch with his cantankerous right hand man (Walter Brennan), a seasoned and insistent cowherder (John Wayne) takes in a young boy (played as an adult by Montgomery Clift) whose wagon party has been slaughtered by Indians. As time passes and the cowboy's dream has been fulfilled, he sees to drive his massive heard on an onerous trek through South Texas to get top dollar for his stock and finds opposition from his protege when his methods are viewed as no less than dictatorial. Howard Hawks' dark and ambitious western features excellent performances from Wayne (extremely brooding) and Clift and two extraordinary montage sequences in his study of commanding respect versus demanding it. The Joanne Dru character, who is tackily introduced to resolve the central conflict, does not hamper an otherwise superiorly made classic.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Chinatown

1930s L.A. private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is drawn into a routine and seemingly simple case of adultery involving the director of the water department and his steamy and fragile wife (Faye Dunaway). When the politico is found murdered, the investigatory trail takes on serpentine and overarching proportions, all leading to Dunaway's nefarious, ruthless businessman father (John Huston). Chinatown boasts one of the cinema's all-time great screenplays courtesy of Robert Towne which throws in everything but the kitchen sink and barely leaves you hanging from a thread. Roman Polanski's direction is masterful (his cameo as a knife wielding hood is memorable also), Nicholson and Dunaway are in top form, and legendary helmer Huston is potently menacing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Boyhood

Boyhood chronicles the coming of age life journey of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), originating with his wayfaring childhood in east and central Texas as he copes with the anguish of a broken home, splitting time between two loving but flawed parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and continuing as he burgeons into a talented though detached adult. Filmed over the course of twelve years, Richard Linklater's passion project is an always enthralling voyage whose sheer vision and scope overcomes portions of the story that should suffer from lulls and overlength, and owes a lot to the fortified performances of Arquette and Hawke and some inspired dialogue and adventitiously captured moments. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

For a documentary on his latest book release, a writer (Tom Wilkinson) recalls his 1968 visit to the titular mountainous lodge where his younger self (played now by Jude Law) interviews the mysterious owner (F. Murray Abraham) who fondly recalls his days as a bellboy under a rascally yet noble concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and their dastardly misadventures during the German invasion. The Grand Budapest Hotel marks both a maturation and a regression of sorts for Wes Anderson, containing exemplary cinematography in which his murky and expectedly overly quirky story often gets lost--a return to the style over substance form that dominated his earlier films. Fiennes turns in a commanding and engaging lead performance while some of the many character actors make memorable turns (I particularly liked Adrian Brody and Willem Dafoe as a pair of sinister brothers) while others such as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson barely serve a purpose and seem like they just showed up for the catering.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

A half-Chechnyan, half-Russian immigrant washes ashore on the docks of Hamburg, Germany and is immediately taken note of by the head of an anti-terror unit (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who hopes to use this potential threat as bait to fry a bigger fish, that is if his superiors and a visiting American emissary (Robin Wright) don't get in his way. A Most Wanted Man, an adaptation of a recent John le Carre novel, is a bit of a tease for its genre, often drumming up the suspense music and offering little payoff while Anton Corbijn, a filmmaker who has offered strong work in the past (Control, The American) mostly lets the movie sit on the screen, often to the point of tedium. It features one of the final performances of Hoffman (I think the final Hunger Games pictures where we will see him partly CGI'd will be his last) and it is a commanding one though I wasn't wild about his German accent nor that of Willem Dafoe, Rachel McAdams and the other Americans in the cast.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Senna

Brazillian Ayrton Senna was a humble Formula One Race Driver who conquered his arena and died tragically in a horrific accident in 1994. Senna presents a portrait of a morose, thoughtful superstar athlete, much different from the kinds we're accustomed to today. It achieves the great feat of presenting a documentary consisting entirely of footage, devoid of lame talking heads expousing their worthless opinions. It does somewhat lose pole position somewhere towards the end but the documentary is a wonder in its own way and it is kind of a shame that Formula One Racing still doesn't have nonfans convinced on merits of its sport.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Clockers

A crack peddler (Mekhi Phifer) operating out of a Brooklyn Housing Project no longer has the stomach for the life but is torn due to loyalty towards the menacing drug lord/father father (Delroy Lindo) who oversees his operation. When he becomes a suspect in a murder investigation that also targets his straight laced brother (Isaiah Washington), he doesn't know whether to trust the homicide detective (Harvey Keitel) who seems to show a genuine concern for his well being. From a novel and screenplay by Richard Price, Spike Lee's Clockers is an intelligent, rollicking, thought provoking film which unravels just slightly towards the end but is still a full blooded original (which makes you question its absence from recent movie conversations). Phifer throws himself into the lead role, which makes it excusable when he occasionally struggles to hit the right notes, Keitel turns in one of his finest performances and Lindo is potent and absolutely petrifying in a great turn.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Lonesome Dove

Two retired Texas Rangers and lifelong rivals (Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones) currently running a livery in the sleepy title town decide to go on one last tremendous journey, a cattle run to Montana country and through the dangerous, dying West. From Larry McMurtry's acclaimed novel, Lonesome Dove is beautifully sentimental and a masterful demonstration in long form storytelling. In addition to the rascally Duvall and cantankerous Jones, there are also standout performances from Robert Urich as another ex-Ranger with a dark cloud around his head, Chris Cooper as a small town sheriff seeking his capture, Ricky Schroder as Jones' likely progeny, and Anjelica Huston playing Duvall's ex-flame.