Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Paradise Lost Films

In May of 1993, the mutilated bodies of three young children were found in the woods near Robin Hood Hills of West Memphis, Arkansas and soon thereafter three teen aged boys were charged with the murder. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky began documenting the case, offering time to both the victim's family as well as the accused and, as the case began to take the national spotlight, it becomes clear that this is no straightforward prosecution. As questionable police interrogation techniques surface, circumstantial evidence is used by the prosecution, and an overzealous stepfather to one of the victims begins hoarding the spotlight, a great doubt is a cast over the accused's guilt. (Spoilers) Beginning with "The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" in 1996, returning six later in visit the West Memphis 3 in prison and get updates from the participants in "Revelations", and finally with their release in the latest installment entitled "Purgatory", Berlinger and Sinofsky use the medium of film to present a gross miscarriage of justice and to call into question the justice system and how our prejudices affect our judgement. The "Paradise Lost" films are a surreal and powerful look at a harrowing case, which also can come off as manipulative and self-promoting. At times, even the filmmakers areguilty of bearing the same kind of prejudice which led to the conviction of its subjects. Still, Berlinger and Sinofsky have a great eye for this kind of filmmaking and it is the small details, such as one of the defendants combing his hair before appearing on the stand or people laughing before giving serious interviews to news cameras, that give these films such power. Beginning with the grisly murders, it would have been impossible to see where this case led and in spite of some questionable practices of their own, Berlinger and Sinofsky have crafted a heartbreaking look at a tragic event rocking a small town, that speaks volumes about our justice system and our prejudices.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Crash

A TV directer living a devoid life and seeking other arenas of sexual stimulation finds it following a serious car crash which leaves him severely injured. Meeting a man posing as a hospital photographer, the director and his likewise dissatisfied wife are led to an underworld comprised of people who attain arousal through their experiences with automobile accidents. David Cronenberg's controversial 1996 film (not to be confused with the 2005 Best Picture winner) is an alternately fascinating and dull look as sexual deviancy where the material is not as lurid nor sexy as one would expect. The cast, which includes James Spader, Holly Hunter, and Elias Koteas asssume risky roles, ignite the screen during the more intriguing scenes, and help propel the film during duller stretches. "Crash" is neither incendiary nor provocative, things one would expect of a film with its reputation and NC-17 rating. It is, however, somewhat successful in its brooding, laconic way.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hemingway & Gellhorn

After a spectacular fishing expedition and the grandiose ceremony following at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West, Ernest Hemingway is introduced to the eager journalist Martha Gellhorn. Both are taken by the plight of the loyalists fighting Franco's fascist in the Spanish Civil War, so they both head out for Madrid where they cover the conflict on the front lines and embark on a stormy and passionate love affair. "Hemingway & Gellhorn" is an expansive HBO movie from director Philip Kaufman that plays like a cacophony of his two best works: the epic and often humorous tones found in "The Right Stuff" and the steamy and sensuous masterial found in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" With superb performances from Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, the filmmakers not only capture the larger than life, live it to the fullest essence of Hemingway but also that of the lesser known Gellhorn who determines to blaze her own trail and, as she puts it, refuses to be a footnote in someone else's life. "Hemingway and Gellhorn" is a richly developed, multi-faceted entertainment that greatly captures two lives, and the kind of film that would have until recently been thought of impossible to be made for television.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Glory

For most of the Civil War, one which was fought largely to eliminate the institution of slavery,  African-Americans were often restricted from service and given abject tasks instead to aid the war effort. "Glory" tells the story of an all black regiment, highly doubted, underfunded, and still given mostly menial and demeaning tasks who, under the command of young, liberal found exaltation the deadly charge of a Confederate fort. Edward Zwick's "Glory" is an impeccable recreation of a little known historical happening adapted from the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and featuring some of the most rousing battle sequences ever committed to film. It is also an overly preachy movie rife with histrionics and featuring a miscast Matthew Broderick in the lead role. Denzel Washington is powerful in his Oscar winning role, but it is also a performance which has become his standard one, and is hard to take at face value. I found Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes to be the real standouts here. "Glory" is a painstaking film of great detail and heart, that feels the need to continually overplay its hand, but still winds up being a stirring historical epic.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff was a master cinematographer who worked in the film industry for an astounding span of ten decades. An innovator with light and the Technicolor format, Cardiff made his name with the inimitable writing/directing British duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, ventured out on his own as a director, and left a remarkable legacy which included two Academy Awards, one for his work in "Black Narcissus" and the other an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award. "Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff" is an in depth look at his career, led by the man himself through a series of interviews shot shortly before his death in 2009 at the age of 91, where he reveals even more of his unique abilities, such as an adept penchant for painting. Cardiff's achievements are incredible in their own right, and with the warm and funny man guiding us through his own journey, it makes this insightful documentary all the more worthwhile.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

All the President's Men

When rookie Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward seeks a courthouse statement from the men who burgled the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate hotel, he thinks he is on to an odd, if unspectacular story. As the various hidden strands begin to reveal themselves, he teams up with jaded reporter Carl Bernstein and begins the tedious and occasionally deadly task of uncovering the greatest political scandal in United States history. Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" is a serpentine, labyrinthine, fascinating, and perhaps possibly a tad too inclusive and precise historical recreation. With Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the leads, both excellent as the dogged reporters, we are given an exacting account of the famous Woodward and Bernstein investigation, as well as a detailed look into a 1970s newsroom. With a barrage of names and a seemingly endless amount of paths to follow, the film can be mind numbing at times, but overall succeeds in making the film all the more gripping. The supporting cast is wonderful, most notably Jack Warden and Martin Balsam as Post editors, Jason Robards as its editor, and Hal Holbrook as the mysterious informant Deep Throat (the parking garage scenes are incredibly intense). "All the President's Men" is a painstaking, involving, and ultimately entertaining demonstration in newspaper/investigative filmmaking.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Horse's Mouth

Gulley Jimson is a tremendous success when it comes to painting, and an incredible failure when it comes to being a human being. Widely respected for his artistic talents, he now bides his time by harassing his benefactor, trying to steal his works back from an ex-wife, and being baled out of jail by his fans. Soon, with the help of his admirers, he sees his way out of dereliction and to his greatest achievement yet: an ambitious public works display. "The Horse's Mouth" is an aimless and clunky film that seeks to recreate the success of the venerable and just ceased Ealing comedies. Alec Guinness is a versatile master, an actor I truly admire, but in the lead role here, I couldn't believe how off-putting and off-key his performance was. Also writing the screenplay, which bafflingly got him an Oscar nod, it should come as no surprise that this wound up being his only writing credit. With classic comedies such as "The Ladykillers" and "The Lavender Hill Mob" just under his belt, it is no wonder that Guinness wanted to recreate those successes and a great puzzlement as to why this film is so banal.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

For Greater Glory

In 1927, the Mexican President began enforcing the anti-clerical laws first established in the country's constitution of 1917. In response to these anti-Catholic purges, a group of revolutionaries formed to fight the government in what came to be known as La Cristiada, and many went on to give their lives in martyrdom for their cause. "For Greater Glory" is an overlong, amateurish production with noble aspirations which feels like it was penned by a fourth grader who was adapting their history textbook. The acting in an impressive cast is underwhelming, and even the legendary Peter O'Toole struggles to find meaning in a scant role. Following last year's "The Way", it is nice to see an interest in these kinds of spiritual pictures, but until the script, cast, and production values are up to par, they are not doing their subjects justice.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Celebration

Members of a prominent Danish family gather at their gorgeous manor home for their patriarchs 60th birthday celebration, shortly after the suicide of one of his daughters. When the deceased's twin brother rises to toast his father, instead of warm anecdotes and glowing praises, bestows tales of gross sexual abuse which has haunted plagued his own life and led his sister to take her own. Now chaos ensues, where members of the family seek to restore order and censor their loose-lipped brother, all of which leads to a troubling and ultimately cathartic experience. "The Celebration" is a dark family drama from Thomas Vinterberg (who refused a directing credit) that was made under the "pure cinema" rules of the Dogma 95 Movement started by fellow Danish filmmakers. The film laughs in the face of generic American family films and creates something deeper and haunting. Its cast is uniformly excellent and I found Ulrich Thomsen's to be among the best, in the difficult role of the depressed and confrontational son. (spoiler) Most movies involving family reunions offer us cookie cutter characters and easy resolutions. By the time we've endured the stark trials of the unique and dysfunctional family here, we can't help but enjoy their deserved final happy sequence.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Tree of Life

5/22/12 I viewed this film again and once more found it to be a beautiful, far reaching, and spellbinding work and just wanted to add that I can't imagine anyone, other than the most closed minded of individuals, not being able to connect with this movie, at least on some level.

6/24/11 In a career spanning almost 40 years, director Terrence Malick has made only five films. Yet each time he does, he strives to create a masterwork bringing his grand vision and stunningly beautiful visuals to the screen. With The Tree of Life, a movie possibly inspired by his childhood in Texas, Malick has crafted perhaps his most ambitious film to date. The film tells of Jack (Hunter McCracken), living in a Texas town with his brothers, his lighthearted mother (Jessica Chastain) and his stern but loving father (Brad Pitt). As the film shows Jack in present day (Sean Penn), we see his relationship with his father and how he grew into such disillusionment. At the same time this story is being presented we get glimpses of the cosmos, the creation of the world, dinosaurs, The Ice Age, and the evolution of life. The Tree of Life is a high aiming and stunning film, replete with beautiful images and landscapes. Brad Pitt is wonderful as Jack's father, portraying a complicated character and McCracken is equally fine as the young Jack. Sean Penn's character's story is underdeveloped, and like many Malick films this is light on plot development. Still, this is another beautiful work from poetic writer/director who never ceases to swing for the fences.

A Foreign Affair

A Congresswoman (Jean Arthur) heads to postwar, occupied Berlin on a government probe of American corruption, and is introduced to an Army captain and fellow Iowan (John Lund), who is carrying on an affair with a sexy local chanteuse (Marlene Dietrich). After a mix-up, the singer falls onto the representative's radar who in turn gradually falls for the Captain. "A Foreign Affair" is a wonderful excursion from the inimitable Billy Wilder and the first of two of his films set in the postwar German capital, the second being the riotous "One, Two, Three". Written with often collaborator Charles Brackett, the film features the typical brand of zany and witty Wilder humor, mixed with stinging social commentary aimed at dark subjects. In the lead role, Lund does a nice job playing a somewhat thankless role giving way to the tremendous work of his female screenstars. Marlene Dietrich is sly and sultry as Lund's mistress, and Jean Arthur is impeccable as the goody goody congresswoman and slowly begins to come unwound. "A Foreign Affair" isn't one of the first titles that springs to mind when the great directors name is mentioned, but it is yet another example of his incomparable talents and wit.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sherlock

Series 2
With Moriarty hatching an even more diabolical plot, Sherlock and Watson find themselves entwined in three more mysteries, this time versions of Conan Doyle's revered classics A Scandal in Bohemia, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Reichenbach Falls. In Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's sophomore run of their retelling of the stories of the world's most famous detective, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman still remain the chief asset of the series, delivering compelling and intensely likable performances (I can't wait to see them both in "The Hobbit" later this year). However, as was my chief complaint last season, and one which has regressed even further here, these wonderful stories are given shabby and paper thin treatment. I also found Andrew Scott to be a poor choice for Moriarty. I feel odd complaining about a crime show with such rich character development, but here in a mystery series as such, storytelling must come first, and given the wealth of material given to the developers, we should be given something much more compelling.
** 1/2


Series 1
The most popular character in literature is supplanted to present day London where he acts as a freelance detective, only offering his unsurpassed brilliant assistance in the cases that interest him the most. Taking on a flatmate who has just been psychologically wounded in the Iraq War, he also proves to be quite resourceful in the detective's inquest, all of which seem to be the masterwork of an equally brilliant and secretive criminal mastermind. "Sherlock" is a BBC reworking of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in a three part series, each entitled A Study in Pink, The Blind Banker, and The Great Game. The series does an excellent job capturing the spirit of the Conan Doyle novels, and compared to the blasphemous Guy Ritchie movies, it is a most welcomed excursion. As Holmes and Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are excellent at capturing the essence of their roles and Cumberbatch is a particular joy to watch as the ingenious and sociopathic detective. I did feel the episodes were marred by overlength and "The Blind Banker" segment seemed to be an unworthy entry. "Sherlock" does succeed in being escapist entertainment, an acting showcase for the stars, and a return to form for the character following the recent film mistreatments.
***

How the West Was Won

Three generations of the Prescott family are seen to conquer the Old West, from their early travails in fording the Erie Canal, to encounters with bandits and Indians in the trek across the Great Plains, to dealings with the railroad and the San Francisco Gold Rush, up until service in the Civil War. "How the West Was Won" is a star-studded, expensive and expansive epic adventure film that is somewhat marred by its overlength, but kept in tack on the whole due to its hokey sense of fun and peril. Directed by three greats, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall and narrated by Spencer Tracy, the film is also buoyed  by the cameo appearances made by such stars as John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Gregory Peck while other familiar faces such as Richard Widmark, Eli Wallach, Lee J. Cobb, and Walter Brennan. There are also several impeccable action sequences, including a dynamic Indian raid, that help pick up the pace following dull stretches of the film.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Weekend

A married bourgeois French couple, both seeing others on the side and both with murderous intentions for their spouse, set out on a nightmarish weekend road trip to attain an inheritance from the woman's dying father, and end up encountering bizarre traffic jams and bandits before joining a radical guerrilla unit and devolving into cannibalism. "Weekend" is Jean-Luc Godard's outrageous critique of France's upper class and perhaps represents the beginning of the end of his utilizing any discernible storytelling techniques. The film feels dated, and like much of his other work, the meaning feels impenetrable as we are supplied with a meandering story and incomprehensible subtitles. Of note, however, is an impressive early scene featuring an 8-minute seemingly unbroken dolly shot of a lengthy and outlandish traffic jam. Godard is a New Wave director who helped reinvent the cinema, and while he has made a number of fascinatingly entertaining films, he has always seemed obliged to stay ahead of the 8-ball, and that is clearly evident in this film, though it is still considered one of the seminal works of the 60s.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Headhunters

A diminutive recruiting executive living beyond his means supplements his income by stealing valuable art pieces from perspective clients. After meeting a prospective client for a high echelon position, who is also in retention of an extremely rare work by Rubens, the recruiter seeks to make one final score, which inevitably leads him down a rabbit hole of violence and mayhem. "Headhunters" is the latest film in two types of trends in action films, a sleek Scandinavian import headed for an American remake and the more common one of thrillers that are more concerned with twists and coincidence than they are with basic storytelling and genuine thrills. When the plot very early on begins introducing such items as "microscopic tracking devices", gun tag being played with blanks, hidden cameras, and a house where "a gun is always within arms reach", you can see the seeds of chicanery being planted. I liked Aksel Hennie's performance and how he was able to make his hotshot character likable, and "Game of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau makes for a sinister bad guy, but it is not enough to make up for the dearth in this sleek Norwegian actioneer. 

Titanic

The doomed luxury liner Titanic set sail from Southampton for the first and last time 100 years ago, taking down with it the hopes and dreams of a vast array of some 1,500 people. In honor of the centennial anniversary of the tragedy, a four part miniseries, penned by "Downton Abbey" and "Gosford Park" scribe, was released detailing ongoings in all three class levels of the ship. I hate to admit it but I think James Cameron has a stranglehold on this territory, and too many this miniseries's scenes, though never dull, mirror that overrated 1997 juggernaut. What sets up quite nicely only makes way for a final episode rife with melodramatic cliches. Fellowes does have a good ear for dialogue from this era, and his game cast acts the material out well, with Toby Jones rising to the top in a particularly good turn as a complacent 2nd class attorney. Although the material is familiar, the story remains nonetheless compelling all these years later.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Great Expectations

"Great Expectations" is another filmization of Charles Dickens' cherished coming-of-age story, this edition made for the "Masterpiece Classic" series. The familiar story tells of orphan Pip, raised by his jaded sister and kindhearted blacksmith uncle, who assists a convict on the British Moors, becomes a playmate to Estella (as well as puppet for her evil guardian Miss Havisham), and finally receives his placement in London society by way of a mysterious benefactor. This version of the classic story is perhaps the most inclusive (I haven't read it, sigh), which may also be the reason as to why its one of the least developed, with too much territory being covered in too little time and too many characters not being given their full due. I did like some of the different takes though, such as a more sympathetic Miss Havisham, as played by Gillian Anderson, and a darker, more brooding version of Pip. Ray Winstone is pretty good as well as the snarling convict who is shown benevolence by the young hero. This version  of "Great Expectations" does have more than a few powerful moments, but for the definitive film version of the classic still refer to David Lean's 1946 masterwork.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Queen to Play

While tidying up a room in a Corsican hotel, a French maid notices a couple on the balcony engaged in a chess match and become immediately interested in the game. While working at her second job, serving as a maid to a cranky American expatriate doctor, she discovers a chess board among his belongings and, after much beckoning, convinces him to teach her the game. "Queen to Play" is a quaint little film from director Caroline Bottaro, and is the kind of simple and observant human drama that the French do so well. In the lead role, Sandrine Bonnaire gives a winning performance as a repressed middle aged woman finally seeking out her dreams, and the real treat of the movie is watching Kevin Kline act in an entirely French speaking role! "Queen to Play" doesn't break new ground, but simply achieves its simple goal: to tell a perceptive and affecting story of a late bloomer and her new found talent.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Cell

A child psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) is developing a new form of therapy on one of her comatose patients whereby she enters the subject's subconscious. When a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) is incapacitated during his arrest, leaving of his victims in a timed water chamber of unknown whereabouts, an FBI investigator (Vince Vaughn) persuades the psychologist to use her technique to enter the diabolical realms of the killer's psyche. "The Cell" is the debut feature film from Tarsem Singh, who is known for his astounding visuals in music videos, "The Fall", and even the unheralded "Immortals". In "The Cell", Singh offers us a vivid and surreal dream world on top of a pretty intriguing serial killer picture. Jennifer Lopez is surprisingly magnetic in the lead role and I like Vince Vaughn's work as the jaded federal agent. Vincent D'Onofrio turns in another creepy performance, the likes of which he has come to be known by. The film does seem to wrap up too quickly and arrives at its conclusion with too much ease though. While watching "The Cell", I couldn't help but think of "Inception" and while that movie has garnered endless amounts of praise, it seems to me that this film handles a similar subject with more tact, plausibility, and character development, thus creating a dream world of people we actually know and care about, and set against a darkly beautiful backdrop.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Train

With the Allies closing in to liberate France, a German colonel (Paul Scofield) decides to transport all the precious works of art  to the fatherland by way of locomotive to boost the waning war effort. In order to take up the dangerous mantle of stopping the train and reclaiming the paintings, the task falls to a French rail worker and resistance leader (Burt Lancaster), who at first does not see the purpose in risking lives for art, but eventually comes around when one of his comrades is murdered in that pursuit. "The Train" is a superior action thriller from director John Frankenheimer, that provides nail biting thrills while providing the technical workings of its featured mechanisms, i.e. the functioning of the train, the unhinging of its tracks, the specifications of C-4 dynamite. Additionally, the film also serves as a wonderful and credible argument for the importance of art. Lancaster is at his quietly powerful best and Scofield makes an absolutely, cold-hearted and sadistic Nazi. "The Train" is rousing entertainment with great thrills, character development, and even technical workings and intellectual stimulation to match the usual (and excellent) genre techniques.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Scenes from a Marriage

Marianne and Johan are two middle aged successful people residing in Stockholm with two daughters and seemingly content marriage. However, when Johan reveals his affair with another woman, Marianne begins divorce proceedings as hidden layers of disdain and contempt are revealed from their still loving relationship. "Scenes from Marriage" is a Swedish television series which was written and directed by legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and remains one of the most regarded and successful works of his considerate. I viewed the 6 part, 6 hour television version (the one most have seen in the U.S. is a feature length and with a slightly different tone) which is an intimate, beautiful, and often harsh work, shot in closeups and consisting almost exclusively of its two stars, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as they enact as the various scenes of their partnership with great power and emotion. "Scenes from a Marriage" is an insightful and difficult character study to the greatest degree from a master filmmaker, his loyal cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and featuring two great performances from his longtime collaborators.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Star Is Born

A self-destructive, alcoholic movie star whose career is in a tailspin discovers a bluesy singer at a dive bar and gets her a screen test at the studio. As the two get married and her fame continues to blossom, his pride becomes wounded and he sinks deeper and deeper into drunkenness and despair. "A Star is Born" is an excellent musical remake by director George Cukor of the 1937 classic film that features one of the career defining performances of Judy Garland, who sings all of her own numbers (including the incredible "The Man Who Got Away") to match her fine performance. As her opposite, James Mason is equally impressive as her coy but loving and ultimately tragic husband. Released in 1954, the film is shot in beautiful Technicolor and has an impeccably modern feel. Following its 3-plus hour release, the was trimmed and many (some crucial) scenes were left on the cutting room floor. New prints of the film feature a original dialogue over still photographs where removed footage remains missing, which leads to a frustrating but still interesting viewing experience. "A Star is Born" is one of the seminal film of the 1950s, not only a memorable musical but also a gorgeous looking film featuring two monumental performances.

The Amish

Following religious persecution in Europe due to their practices of adult baptism, the Mennonite people sought refuge in the New World around the turn of the 18th Century. Today, in a hurried technological world, they continue to maintain their simple and devout ways in the face of the various modern threats that confront their communal lifestyle. "The Amish", a recent entry in the spectacular American Experience television series,  is a fascinating look at a way of life that seems foreign and baffling to many, but continues to hold an appeal to the few who continue to adopt its ways. This program offers a complete presentation of the religion and its followers, from offering a history of their group to documenting recent struggles regarding fighting modernity and deal with our crippling economy. Interviews are also given, not only by practicing members of the faith, but also by those who were raised in it and subsequently chose to renounce it. "The Amish" is a comprehensive look at an enduring and enigmatic people who continue to fascinate and puzzle due to their simplistic and pious ways.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

sex, lies, and videotape

A repressed housewife's sleazy husband is carrying on an affair with her much more liberated sister. One day they are paid a visit by the husband's college chum, whom he hasn't seen in nine years, and whose odd fetishistic penchant throws a wrench into the whole backwards arrangement. Steven Soderbergh's directorial debut helped jumpstart the independent film movement and despite of its scintillating title and set-up is an intelligent and extraordinarily well made piece of adult oriented entertainment. The cast is excellent, with Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo playing sisters of opposite polarity and to great effect while Peter Gallagher portrays that kind of yuppie scumbag he does so well. Then there is James Spader, who is absolutely dynamic as Gallagher's visiting college mate. While watching this, I was thinking to myself, would these films ever even exist without his involvement? "sex, lies, and videotape" is smart and involving, and even more so when the heart of the film is revealed. Soderbergh has gone on to become one of our most versatile directors, but his talent was evident from the outset with this brilliant and well constructed film.

The Outlaw Josey Wales

A southern farmer joins a group of Confederate bandits after his family is slaughtered and finds himself on the run after he is betrayed by the leader of his group. While violently ducking Union soldiers, he teams with a Cherokee Indian and a group of settlers while preparing for the onslaught that is certain to come. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is an early directorial effort from Clint Eastwood, and one that sought to replicate the success of his Dollars Trilogy of a decade earlier. Instead, and as a result of poor, simplistic screenplay by Phillip Kaufman (who was initially slated to direct), we are given a saccharine, hokey version of The Man with No Name in what is still a pretty violent western (Eastwood did a better job with this task a few years prior in "High Plains Drifter"). I did want to note that John Vernon (Dean Wormer) has an excellent turn as Eastwood's reluctant betrayer. "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is a film of noble intentions and one not without merit, that gets bogged down by the limitations of its screenplay.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Avengers

The glorified emo Loki has emerged through a time portal, broken into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s cavernous lair, and taken possession of a cube that could decimate the earth. Now, the grandiose and disparate throng of superheros from the previous lackluster movies (exception the first Iron Man) must band together and blow a bunch of shit up before saving the world etc. etc. etc. "The Avengers" storms into theaters with a lot of flash, thunder, and fury, but not enough to cover its barely veiled and borderline contempt for anything resembling plot or character development. Too many undeveloped characters are thrown into the mix with the only objective being, to the delight of many I'm sure, a non-stop action assault on the senses. Director Joss Whedon stages these sequences well, but the way I see it, watching a handful of indestructible beings do battle holds about as much interest as does the Mac/Neil Lehrer Hour. There must be something at stake regarding the principle's vulnerability! "The Avengers" is a film that is guaranteed to please action fans, a genuine banquet for the eye and a numbing paucity for the mind.

sidenote: In case I forgot to comment the last time around, Captain America has got to be the blandest action hero to ever grace the silver screen. I think even Monty Python's Bicycle Repairman had more charisma and vitality.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dark Shadows

In the 1760s, the Collins family set out from Liverpool for the New World, where they found immediate success, establishing their fishing industry and founding the town of Collinsport, Maine. At the same time, their son Barnabas became quite the man about town, romancing many of the young ladies of the village, until he scorned the wrong one, who in turn cursed his entire family, turned him into a vampire, and buried him in the earth. 200 years later, his coffin was accidentally excavated and he returned to seek an end to his immortality and aid his dysfunctional descendants. "Dark Shadows" is a remake of a television series that ran from 1966-1971 and yet another collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, one that occasionally bears fruit ("Ed Wood", "Sweeney Todd"), but has mostly grown tiresome. Burton is a director who prioritizes visuals and his own sense of style over all us, and here that is once again the case as he becomes carried away and forgets certain little details like plot and character development, so much to the point that I think he even forgot that certain characters were even in the picture! There is also major problem with tones here, with the gothic Victorian ones blending with that of the dippy, psychedelic 70s supposed to be play laughs, but instead landing with a resounding thud. With that being said, the film is not a total waste. Depp is fun in the lead role and fellow Burton veterans Michelle Pfeiffer and Helena Bonham Carter are good also. Two actresses I've admired, Chloe Grace Moretz and the beautiful Eva Green, seem curiously out of their depths. There's a time when all relationships must come to an end and, although there is a little to admire here, "Dark Shadows" is another sign that Depp and Burton should sever theirs.

Life's Too Short

Season 1
Whether its being tossed about by Johnny Depp, being placed in a trash bin by Helena Bonham Carter, or the everyday problems of divorce or bankruptcy, life is not picnic for a dwarf in show business. "Life's Too Short" follows the day to day rigmarole and embarrassments of Warwick Davis, the 3'6", narcissistic actor appearing in such films as "Return of the Jedi", the Harry Potter series, and "Willow". The series was written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and is more of the same from the creators of the immensely popular "The Office" and "Extras", with Davis basically serving as a David Brent stand-in and celebrity cameos thrown in for good measure (Depp and Liam Neeson are particular standouts). Still, the show finds many moments of hilarity and although it is not its developers greatest achievement, it is still stands as a worthwhile comic exercise.
***

Monday, May 7, 2012

Grey Gardens

In 1975 two cousins, mother and daughter, of Jackie Kennedy were facing eviction from their East Hampton mansion when they were found living among filth, raccoons, and God knows what else until their famous former first lady relation saved them from removal. Already having been "discovered" by the Maysles brothers and documented in their film of the same name, "Grey Gardens" charts their course from New York social debutantes of the 1930s to their current state of squalor. "Grey Gardens" is an excellent, so strange it has to be true story, centering on the strong, eccentric performances of its leading lady. As the controlling and confused matron, Jessica Lange is her usual amazing self and the greatest surprise, it gives me pleasure to say, is Drew Barrymore, turning in an alternately goofy and touching portrayal as the daughter. I had long ago written off Mrs. Barrymore as untalented and irritating, but after watching her incredible turn in this film, I'm starting to believe that she has just been misused. Also providing excellent though brief work here is Jeanne Tripplehorn as a sullen Jackie Kennedy. "Grey Gardens" finds moments of comedy, tragedy, and humanity amidst a bizarre true-to-life story.

Triangle: Remembering the Fire

When I was in grade school, we were told of the harrowing Collinwood fire which took the lives of 175 people, mostly children, from a neighboring school in 1908 and led to a massive upheaval in fire codes and regulation. A similar and no less horrifying incident that bore the same aftermath took place three years later at the Triangle Garment Factory in New York City which unnecessarily claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly consisting of young immigrant women. "Triangle: Remembering the Fire" is an incredible in-depth look at the tragic event as well as a tribute to its victims, made largely by their descendants who recall the horrid event as it has been passed down through the generations. The documentary in intelligently written and impeccably researched that also carries a scary message of corporate priorities while detailing an avoidable horrific tragedy that took place not that long ago.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How to Die in Oregon

In 1994, Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act, becoming the first state to legalize assisted suicide. In this documentary, the current state of the euthanasia debate is examined while we are introduced to several terminally ill patients who take their own lives right on screen. "How to Die in Oregon" is a shameless documentary that seeks to brutalize and guilt you towards its side, but never feels like anything other than a "Faces of Death" video. I do not wish to go on a euthanasia rant but, being a raised Catholic, it is very hard to approach this subject objectively and sadly, neither can the filmmakers.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

An Indiana electrician is sent out on a late night job when he encounters a UFO. From that point on, to the chagrin and even neglect of his own family, he becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind the occurrence and is inexplicably drawn, along with several other people, to rendezvous point in a mountainous region of Wyoming. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was Steven Spielberg's followup to his smashing hit "Jaws", and is a thoughtful and highly entertaining look at alien encounters. Above everything else, the film is marked by spectacular special effects that seem almost impossible for the time it was made. From his own screenplay, Spielberg crafts scenes of great invention and directs them with the greatest skill. In the lead role, Richard Dreyfuss is an ideal everyman and is given great support from Teri Garr and Melinda Dillon, who play his concerned wife and a woman undergoing a similar experience, respectively. Legendary film director Francois Truffaut also has a wonderful role as a scientist orchestrating the greetings for the great alien arrival. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is an impossible film, both for its supreme special effects and in the rare and intelligent way it approaches its subject.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Naked Spur

A rancher returns (James Stewart) home from the Civil War to find his wife has sold the farm and run off. Disgraced and half-crazed, he takes up a hefty bounty on a manipulative and wily killer (Robert Ryan) in order to retrieve his farm, and finds himself unwillingly in on the deal with a prospector (Millard Mitchell), an ex-soldier (Ralph Meeker) and the confused girlfriend (Janet Leigh) of his target. "The Naked Spur" is another entry in the lengthy collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann, and is a simple yet powerful treatise on conscience and ethics. Mann makes great usage of his Colorado locations and Stewart delivers another dark and nuanced postwar performance. Additionally, Robert Ryan is a particular standout as the cunning and malevolent outlaw.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Appropriate Adult

In the U.K., The title term refers to the person assigned guardianship and holding the interests of a youth or mentally challenged suspect during a police interrogation. When serial killer (and learning disabled) Fred West was questioned for a series of murders in Gloucester in 1994, he was assigned a newly licensed appropriate adult and with whom he began an odd relationship and correspondence before hanging himself a year later in his prison cell. By staying as close to the case facts as possible, this film documents the relationship between West and his guardian Janet Leach, as well as the turmoil this friendship unleashed on her personal life. "Appropriate Adult" is an exacting crime drama that centers on two fine lead performances. Emily Watson, one of our most gifted and criminally underappreciated actresses, brings stark believability to her vulnerable and naive character and Dominic West of TV's "The Wire" delivers a scary portrayal as the manipulative and psychopathic West. Monica Dolan is similarly terrifying as West's husband/accomplice. After viewing the numerous and often unrealistic American TV crime dramas, "Appropriate Adult" is an authentic and often horrifying look at evil personified.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea

A London housewife, feeling unloved by and bored with her stuffy husband, begins an affair with a brash, young ex-RAF fighter still relishing in his wartime exploits from a few years back. After an ineffectual suicide attempt, their passionate relationship reveals its unsteady nature as the dour woman's notions of love and lust are explored. "The Deep Blue Sea" is a brooding and insightful film directed and adapted for the screen by Terrence Davies, from Terrence Rattigan's 1952 novel. Davies successfully recreates post WWII London and tells his story in a fragmented way, that features several grabbing, unique, and perfectly well-realized sequences (one of which is a flashback to a group hiding out in an underground tunnel during the bombing of Britain). Rachel Weisz is excellent in the leading role as the sullen and wanting lady, and Simon Russell Beale as her husband and Tom Hiddleston as her ardent lover are both great as well. "The Deep Blue Sea" is a deeply felt meditation on the definition of love, centered on its outstanding lead performance.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind 'Little Women'

Although she grew up in an educated household in 19th Century New England, studying transcendentalism under Ralph Waldo Emerson and making acquaintanceships with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott grew up poor, and also independent, intelligent, and tough-minded. Through the course of her lifetime, she became a highly celebrated and successful author, writing nonstop and cementing her legacy in Little Women, one of the most popular of all American books, and one that reflected her own cherished family."Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind 'Little Women'" takes a different approach than the other profiles in the American Masters series and features actors portraying Alcott and the other figures in her life, while directing the camera directly, an approach I was at first opposed to, but which then grew on me. The rest of Alcott's surprising and highly accomplished is nicely presented in this loving portrait of a highly admired author.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On Death Row

While interviewing a death row inmate only eight days before his execution for his harrowing documentaty "Into the Abyss", Werner Herzog came across several other inmates awaiting their final judgement, and decided to expand his film into a four part television miniseries. Made in the same immediate, unflinching manner of the documentary, "On Death Row" features five inmates divulging their involvement in their alleged crime as well as emotive details of life on death row, which in turn is supplemented by crime scene footage and interviews with professionals involved in the case. Although providing a disclaimer stating he rejects the death penalty, Herzog projects these stories through an objective lens, presenting facts and clear observations while letting his subjects plead his case. Most of Herzog's work, both fiction and nonfiction, seem to be peppered with great moments of wonder, be it an incredible moment of insight from his interview subject or some sort of remarkable happening he was able to catch on film. Watching this insightful and heartbreaking series, it is a little clearer to see how he comes about them, with his gentle manner and acute questions. "On Death Row" is an agonizing film that, like its immediate predecessor, is a sharp critique of our culture and a sullen look at wasted lives.