Saturday, June 30, 2012

2012 Mid-Year Top 10 List

Since I started generating these lists about two or so years ago, something I've tried to avoid commenting on is the state of the quality of movies in general. In my experience, I have usually been able to find about 1-2 quality films a week at either the multiplex or a more independent minded theater. Since the close of last year however, there really has been a noticeable dearth that warrants comment. So for those you feeling bombarded by battleships, titans, loraxes, dystopian teenagers, vampires, vampire hunting presidents, dwarves, piranhas, aliens, or whatever big, loud bombardment has left you reeling, and also somewhat out of a duty to tradition, here are the 10 best films that have risen above the dismal wreckage so far this year:

10. Haywire - Earlier this year, Steven Soderbergh released another film, this entertaining espionage thriller featuring UFC fighter Gina Carano and a star studded cast including Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, and "Magic Mike" star Channing Tatum

9. Chronicle - A high school movie about three teens acquiring kinetic powers and filmed in a Blair Witch/Cloverfield queasy cam style was the last film I expected to enjoy, but found this instead to be an astute, character driven movie with an interesting premise.

8. Coriolanus - Ralph Fiennes chooses a lesser known Shakespeare work for his directorial debut, sets it in modern day Rome while retaining the original language in John Logan's script, and delivers a fierce, snarling performance.

7. The Deep Blue Sea - Rachel Weisz gives an affecting performance in Terrence Davies stark but well-realized tale of a bored housewife partaking in an affair during the bombing of Britain.

6. The Kid with a Bike - There's not a moment of false sentiment or untruth in the Dardennes brothers story of a troubled youth being adopted by a kindhearted young woman and being enticed by the neighborhood gang.

5. Hemingway and Gellhorn - Philip Kaufman's movie about the stormy and steamy relationship between a war correspondent and the larger than life author. Great performances from Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman.

4. Bernie - Richard Linklater presents another unique and unexpected work, this one a crime story featuring Jack Black as a mortician becoming an unwilling companion to Shirley MacLaine.

3. Under African Skies - "Paradise Lost" filmmaker Joe Berlinger's documentary is both a celebration of Paul Simon's seminal album Graceland and an introspective of the controversial storm surrounding Simon's ignoring of the South African U.N. embargo by working with musicians affected by the evils of apartheid.

2. Prometheus - Vitalic director Ridley Scott revisits "Alien" territory and crafts an original, intelligent, visceral, and well-acted science fiction film.

1. Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson hones his craft and concocts his most mature film to date, arty and whimsical yes, but a gorgeous and tender ode to young love, featuring a cast of Anderson regulars and newbies all contributing their best to this magical work.

Odd Man Out

Just on the heels of a jailhouse break, Johnny McQueen, the leader of an unnamed IRA-like organization, plots a bank robbery to fund his terrorist sect. Wounded during the operation, Johnny falls from the getaway car and scuttles quickly down an alley into an abandoned storefront. Alone, dying, and pursued he now must make his way back to the hideout where his girl waits, and where they can administer medical services and protection. In "Odd Man Out" as was the case  Vienna in his classic "The Third Man", Carol Reed is in love with the shadowy city of the night and again crafts many wonderful external nocturnal scenes, this time in Belfast. In the film that gives James Mason first billing and launched him to stardom, he unfortunately has limited screen time and his top notch portrayal, along with that of some of the other actors portraying IRA figures, gives way to less interesting characters. However, the film does wrap up in a grand and exceedingly bleak fashion. "Odd Man Out" is a well-made thriller that shows off the talents of its leading man in a limited role, as well as the great aesthetics of its ample director.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Robe

A lewd and indifferent Roman Tribune gets on Emperor Caligula's bad side and finds himself reprimanded to the undesirable locale of Jerusalem where, under the command of Pontius Pilate, he assists in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Casting lots for the garments of the Savior while He still hangs on the cross, the centurion finds himself  immediately compelled to the cause, and seeks to spread the word of God despite the perils it may cause his own life. "The Robe" is a Technicolor religious epic, the first film to be made in the CinemaScope format, and one that is more notable for its acting than anything else. A young Richard Burton, in a career defining role containing many of his recognizable characteristics, is stellar. Jean Simmons is particularly appealing playing Burton's childhood sweetheart and Victor Mature is rousing as his rebellious slave. Jay Robinson has a scene stealing part as the snarling, malevolent Caligula. "The Robe" can be seen as overly pious or banal, but its story is compelling and is given weight by the strength of its indelible cast.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

After his house in broken into and ransacked, Robert Parker and his wife Mary drop their young son Peter off at his brother's and die mysteriously in a plane crash soon thereafter. As an awkward and brooding teenager, Peter discovers a briefcase with a hidden compartment that may carry the secrets of his parent's death and leads him to Oscorp Industries, the laconic, one-armed Dr. Curtis Connors, and his ultimate destiny as his web slinging alter ego. Fairly quickly on the heels on the last entry, Spider-Man gets a complete reboot, which may at first appear superfluous, but is carried out with such aplomb and improves over the Sam Raimi movies in almost every single regard. Andrew Garfield, who made waves a couple years ago in a succession of films ("The Social Network", "The Red Riding Trilogy", "Never Let Me Go") is a marked improvement over Toby Maguire, and makes a darker and more heedless hero instead of simply just being gawky. Emma Stone is lovely as the love interest Gwen Stacey, and suceeds in being so much more than a damsel in distress. The remainder is an exercise in intuitive casting: Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt Mae, Denis Leary as Stacey's father and NYC police commander, and Rhys Ifans injecting something deeper than we've come to expect in his role as the villain. If the casting was fortuitous, I would have to say the same about the decision to hire director Marc Webb (pun?) who had an unexpected success with the delightful and offbeat "(500) Days of Summer". Here not only do the technical elements look spectacular (I even enjoyed the 3D), but the romance elements are wonderful and genuine also. Credit should also be due to the screenwriting team which includes James Vanderbilt ("Zodiac"), Steve Kloves (Harry Potter), and veteran penner Alvin Sargent ("Paper Moon", "Ordinary People"). There are retreading moments that make the film seem a little unnecessary (i.e. Uncle Ben's death), but all in all I was surprised by how taken I was with a film whose well I supposed had run dry.
Random thought: I wonder if Webb is going to try to rival the great Billy Wilder for the number of great last lines. Following "Summer", this also has a good one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Magic Mike

Mike is a pretty industrious dude, working construction by day and working as a stripper by night to help jump start his new furniture design company. When a ne'er-do-well coworker asks for help getting into his club, and finds himself onstage alongside him, Mike soon takes the punk under his wing on journey through the fast lane while falling for his beautiful, overprotective sister. "Magic Mike" is a well-made film by eclectic director Steven Soderbergh which plays like A-level porn before settling down in its second half for a fairly solid character study. It pains me to say this, but Channing Tatum has an allure, and as with "21 Jump Street" he does a fine job carrying this film. Matthew McConaughey is strong as the sleazy club owner and Cody Horn gives the film a balance as Tatum's foil. Things start going in an interesting direction toward the end, which the filmmakers don't quite follow through on. This also might play better if you don't see it in a theater full of ravenous, shrieking, sex starved females.

The Great Escape

Blemished by and fed up with the number of prisoner escape attempts, the Nazis round up all Allied soldiers with a history of decampment and lodge them in a maximum security POW camp. Led by the indomitable British officer (Richard Attenborough), an assorted group also group featuring a brash American fighter pilot (James Garner), a Polish tunneling expert (Charles Bronson), a coy manufacturer (James Coburn), a forger losing his vision (Donald Pleasance), and a stoic loner (Steve McQueen) begins almost immediately a daring plan to build three tunnels (named Tom, Dick, and Harry) to lead the entire camp past the fences to freedom. Based on a true story, John Sturges' "The Great Escape" is a rollicking wartime adventure. Lengthy but never longish, Sturges assuredly builds his well told story that pays off with the incredible escape sequence, which is then followed up with one of the great chase sequences as Steve McQueen tries to outrun a band of Germans on his motorcycle. In a cast full of tough guys, McQueen of course oozes steely coolness but James Garner is also quite convincing as the ace pilot. "The Great Escape" is a grand Hollywood entertainment and the kind of film you watch with longing when you realize the cliche holds true that they don't make 'em like they use to.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Brave

The defiantly independent princess to a newfound Scottish dynasty resists her mothers instructions to chose a suitor from one of the other three ruling clans. When it appears the queen will not relent, the princess resorts to other, more magical means which will have an opposing effect and ultimately test her courage, teach her about responsibility, and unite her with her parents. Pixar's latest offering begins as a sweeping and majestic wonder as our hero glides through the Highlands on her horse while demonstrating her prowess at archery. The film settles down into something more mundane, resembling any number of routine animated films before evolving into something creepy bordering on disturbing before pushing towards the gates with a strong finish. The voicework is strong. I could listen to Kelly Macdonald ("Boardwalk Empire", "No Country for Old Men") all day long in the leading role, and Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson are equally fine as her parents. These characters are invested with the same weight given to dwellers of other great(er) Pixar movies, but other characters and elements seem lifted straight out of the stockpile animators turn to when the well runs dry. 
note: Do not see this in 3D, as it does a disservice to what is truly a beautiful film by dimming and clouding its luminous scenery.

The Oscar nominated short "La Luna" plays before the feature, which is a sweet little film about an old man and his son teaching his boy the ropes of the family business.

Brief Encounter

A young woman waiting to catch a train home gets a speck of something caught in her eye and has it removed by a charming doctor who, after sharing a few words, begins an impassioned affair with, despite the fact that they have loving families to return to. Meeting weekly in the station, reality soon sets in and they realize they must put an end to their short but sweet dalliance. "Brief Encounter" is a simple and soapy drama, which may not be typical of director David Lean's later epics, but is still directed with the same bravura and also with poignant sensitivity. Based on the Noel Coward play Still Life, Lean uses crisp black and white photography and inventive direction to enhance the story. Celia Jesson and Trevor Howard are both excellent playing the somber leads and Cyril Raymond has an amusing role as Jesson's preoccupied husband. "Brief Encounter" is a bittersweet romance and an assured early entry in a remarkable directing career.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Screaming Man

Adam, a former swim champion, tends a hotel pool in Chad with his teenaged son Abdel. When management decides they no longer can justify two pool attendants, and that Abdel is more charismatic with the guests, they transfer Adam to a menial gatekeeping task. Incredibly hurt and irate, Adam sees the ongoing civil war as an opportunity to gain his old job back. "A Screaming Man" is a beautiful and observant film, though glacially place, that delves deeply into the heart of its brooding main character and explores his wounded. Director Mahamt-Saleh Haroun shoots on an incredibly gorgeous canvas, and captures both the beauties and horrors of modern day Chad. Haroun has cited Yasujiro Ozu as a major influence, and like the films of the great Japanese director, "A Screaming Man" quietly explores the humanity of its subjects and bears great fruit if approached with patience and an open mindset.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Day of the Jackal

When French President Charles De Gaulle decides to grant Algeria their independence, many of his military officers feel betrayed following their long struggle there, and a small secret sect decides to have him assassinated. After a botched attempt, and now with the president on high alert, the group decides to recruit a highly skilled outsider to take care of the hit. With the Jackal, as he likes to be called, making his meticulous plans and closing in, the French government, following an insider tip, turns to an equally exacting police inspector to try to stop him before its too late. Fred Zinnemann's "The Day of the Jackal" is a precise and engrossing thriller adapted for the screen from the bestselling Frederick Forsyth novel. Zinnemann closely follows the moves of the Jackal alongside that of the inspector, both with great detail, and we are given the sense that we are viewing what both these processes may actually be like. The actors playing these roles, Edward Fox as the assassin and Michael Lonsdale as the detective, also bring a great deal of gravitas to these roles. "The Day of the Jackal" in not only a wonderfully involving film, but also one that pulls that rare trick, where we are aware of the outcome of the film, but are still biting our nails all the way until the credits roll.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Babe

It seemed like destiny when Babe (the name his mother called all his siblings) was snatched from his family by carnival workers and stared deep into the eyes of farmer Hoggett, who proceeded to guess the young pig's weight and take him home to his rural home. Lonely and heartbroken, Babe is "adopted" by a sheepdog and when he learns that a pig's primary function on a farm is to serve as food, he strives to break the species barrier and become the world's greatest (and only) sheep pig. "Babe" is an endlessly enchanting from director Chris Noonan and screenwriter George Miller from the novel "The Sheep Pig" by Dick King-Smith. With seemless special effects, a funny and tender script, great voicework especially from Christine Cavanaugh as Babe, and a nuanced, deeply felt performance from James Cromwell, "Babe" is an absolute winner from beginning to end. For a movie aimed at kids, I was amazed at how often I laughed, how dark some of the material is, and how true some of the emotions were, so it should be no wonder that this scored such sought after Oscar nods in the Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor category. Like that of its central character, "Babe" respects its audiences' intelligence and delivers a delightful film that truly all can enjoy.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Intouchables

A quadriplegic blueblood is interviewing for a personal assistant when an impoverished, charming, and unorthodox Senegalese immigrant bursts into the room, tired of waiting to get his benefit check signed, and is immediately given the job, at which point the two become immediate friends. The worst thing "The Intouchables" has going for it, aside from its title, is its "poor black man helps rich crippled white man" plot line. Instead of the cloying, grating film most would expect with such material, we are given two warm, funny, and flawed characters who earn the movie's sentiment and are the reason this film has won such international acclaim. Francois Cluzet and especially Omar Sy are excellent in two vastly disparate and extremely challenging roles. I felt this film worked better as an escapist buddy picture than it did as social commentary, but is still successful thanks to the naturally sympathetic performances of its leads.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Insider

After being fired from a major tobacco company, scientist Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) contacts 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) to spill the beans on the toxic practices of his former employer, despite the fact that he is still bound by a confidentiality agreement. Now, as Bergman and renowned reporter Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer) fight the brass at CBS to air the inflammatory interview, Wigand now faces lawsuits and must fend for the safety of his family. "The Insider" is a brilliant thriller that combines the acute sensibilities of director Michael Mann with an ingenious screenplay by Eric Roth. Told largely as two separate stories, most found the one involving Wigand's struggles to be the more intriguing one and although Crowe gives a towering performance, I must say that I was fascinated by the scenes involving Pacino and the inner workings of the 60 minutes studio. Also, it is absurd that Plummer was not even considered for an Oscar here. "The Insider" is an intelligent and thrilling modern nonfiction film, that features great performances and a damning account of an unscrupulous corporation.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Salton Sea

Following the death of his wife, an L.A. trumpet (Val Kilmer) player submerges into a life of addiction amidst  a various assortment of pimps, junkies, and other lowlifes. Also working as a narcotics informant and not always appearing what he seems, he becomes involved with a major drug deal involving his tweaker pal (Peter Sarsgaard) and maniacal and deformed kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio). D.J. Caruso's directorial debut is a lurid and engaging film until its big twist is revealed in the latter stages. At this point we begin suspect that the real conceit of the movie is that its ambitions of being clever and gimmicky instead of the well made, nicely developed movie it was up to that point, which is only (and sadly) confirmed by the tidy and unsatisfactory ending. Val Kilmer is excellent though and is given nice support from Sarsgaard and especially D'Onofrio, who again adds to his list of over-the-top sociopaths, this one a noseless, ill-tempered shitkicker. Many modern movies seemed to be plagued by a sort of "twist syndrome", where the filmmakers feel the compulsive need to pull the rug out from under the audience, no matter the cost. "The Salton Sea" is one of the greatest victims of this, considering how involved I was through much of it, and how pissed off I was at the conclusion.

sidenote: This is the second film I've seen in a week and a half featuring Deborah Kara Unger and a band of weirdos who like to recreate tragic historical accidents.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

On an  island off the coast of New England, a misfit orphan abandons his boy scout troop and  runs away with the sullen village girl he had met and fallen in love with the year prior. As a rescue party gathers, which includes the remainder of his squad led by their irrepressible leader (Edward Norton), the girl's emotionally distant parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), and the island police captain (Bruce Willis), the well-being of the subject's usually glazed over states of tumult are finally called to the forefront. "Moonrise Kingdom" is a warm and tender letter only to childhood adulation, but also to unrequited love and innocence. It is beautifully shot and wonderfully directed on its Rhode Island locations by Wes Anderson who keeps his fanciful sensibilities in balance, and crafts his grandest and most mature work to date. Its star studded cast, which also includes Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and a very funny Jason Schwartzman are all excellent (Willis deserves award consideration), but its younger, unknown cast also sparkles, especially Jared Gillman and Kara Hayward who play the young lovers. I have often felt held at arm's length by Anderson's overly whimsical work. Watching this film though I realized he is keeping film as art alive, a kind of cinematic tradition that is almost virtually extinct.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

As breaking news reports that a crew of astronauts has been killed in their attempts to detonate a gargantuan meteor plummeting towards earth(see "Armageddon"), the human race prepares for the end of the world, which is to take place in approximately two weeks. A sullen salesman, whose wife has just fled with her lover, sets out to find his high school sweetheart with his dippy neighbor from downstairs tagging along, who hopes to reach her family across the Atlantic Ocean. "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is an instantly forgettable film, the kind where the lead characters are named Dodge and Penny and the filmmakers seem more concerned with the songs on the soundtrack than they do with anything resembling an engaging story or character development. What begins with dark comedy suddenly turns mushy then maudlin, and never really succeeds at pulling any of them off. Steve Carell is good in a performance he has delivered nearly every single time out and I found Keira Knightley to be her usual lovely self. "Seeking a Friend" is neither a good nor bad film. It just sort of exists, not really establishing itself as anything.

The Killing

Season 2
As the mayoral election approaches, the search for Rosie's killer continues as detectives Linden and Holder follow the various strands while confronting their own personal demons. Following all the accusations at the close of last season, i was willing to let it slide because I was still intrigued by the atmosphere of the series and some of the acting. Season 2 does nothing less than validate these claims of the series being misleading and spinning its wheels. Red herrings and unworthy storylines abound in a season that continually trades in its audience's goodwill, and wraps up in a series of revelations that hardly seemed worth the effort. All is not without its merits, and stars Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman continue to turn in stellar work (Kinnaman deserves an Emmy). I also actually enjoyed the performances of Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton who succeed once the histrionics are turned down. Also, it is kind of amazing how far a city (Seattle) can carry a show. Still., season 2 of "The Killing" proves largely disposable, and serves as an argument that this would have worked better in an abbreviated miniseries.
** 1/2

Season 1
The Killing is a crime drama adapted from the successful Danish series by Veena Sud. The show follows the police investigation of a murder of a 17 year old girl. Each episode represents one day in the case, and along with the investigation, we delve into the lives of the two investigators, the murdered girl's family, case suspects, and politicos involved in a tangential political election. Starring newcomer Mireille Enos as a single mother who is trying to leave her position as a Seattle detective, but becomes too involved with the investigation, so much so that her personal life begins to suffer. She is teamed up with a narcotics transfer played by Joel Kinnaman, who looks unkempt and appears to be always on the take. Also coming into the mix are a politician running for city council played by Billy Campbell, the victim's teacher (Brandon Jay McLaren) who is a suspect and has ties to the campaign, as well as her suffering parents played by Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes. The look and feel of the show is dark and dreary, and the use of rainy Seattle locations nicely adds to this. Throughout the first season, there were many red herrings used to mislead the audience, which I didn't mind to much as I imagine this is what an actual investigation goes through. A major gripe I have with the show is the quality of the acting, which I've noticed suffers with supporting players in television series. Enos and Campbell are solid, and I would like to note the work of Kinnaman whose role is complex and who pulls it off exceedingly well. The rest of the cast however, for the most part, could use a few semesters at the Actor's Studio, particularly Forbes and Sexton who really hurt the show by dropping the proverbial ball in vital roles. The Killing is engaging television, but I felt that the show was struggling to pull off its day to day format. It will be interesting to see how the series progresses in season two and if it can maintain its current structure.
***

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

An aging alcoholic college professor and his bitter wife return to their campus home late one night, where they still plan to have the new strapping science professor and his waifish wife over for drinks, which quickly devolves into a night of callousness and debauchery, as old wounds and resentments are revealed. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is Mike Nichols' provocative directorial debut, and filmization of Ernest Lehman's adaptation of Edward Albee's stage production in what appears at first to be an exercise in cruelty, but soon reveals itself as something deeper and more tragic. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton deliver brave and searing career defining performances, and George Segal and Sandy Dennis are also fine as the young couple. Haskell Wexler's Oscar winning black and white photography wonderfully captures the material and helps open it up for the screen. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was controversial for its time, for its language and sexual frankness. The material is less shocking by today's standards, but few would find it any less powerful or moving.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

In the Mood for Love

A newspaperman and a secretary move into adjoining rooms on the same day in a crowded 1962 Hong Kong apartment. The two slowly form a friendship and gradually realize that both their spouses are having affairs, with each other to boot. Instead of acting on their own romantic feelings for each other, the two decide to uphold their marriage vows while reenacting just what could have happened to push their partners into each other's arms. "In the Mood for Love" is a sorrowful, laconic, and gorgeous film from director Kar Wai Wong, who does a masterful job of staging and presenting his film. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are excellent in the their roles and do a superb job of conveying feelings of unrequited love. Watching this film however, while becoming submerged in the sumptuous visuals, I found myself totally uninvolved in the story. Wong has crafted a magnificently looking, impeccably crafted film featuring two magnetic leads with a plodding story that doesn't do the other elements justice.

Friday, June 15, 2012

41

George Herbert Walker Bush has as veritable a resume as any American in 20th Century: World War II hero, standout baseball player at Yale, Texas Congressman, U.N. Ambassador, Chinese Envoy, head of the C.I.A., Vice President, and 41st President of the United States. Added to that and politics aside, he always comes across as a decent person: the epitome of the last great generation, holding American and family ideals near, and the kind of guy with whom you would want to fish with and share a beer. "41" is an HBO documentary that profiles the former Commander in Chief, as told directly by the man himself in an interview at his Kennebunkport home in Maine, which comes across much like an interview with your grandfather. Bush speaks candidly on his triumphs (I don't know if any other modern president appeared to enjoy the office as much) and trials, such as being shot down in the Pacific, the loss of his young daughter to Leukemia, and losing his 1992 election. I was disappointed he didn't comment on his son's presidency (which may have been the right choice), but "41" is affectionate look at a impressive leader.

Animal Farm

The various creatures of Manor Farm gather around to hear Old Major, the wise prized pig, give a speech on the selfishness of their owner Mr. Jones and how the "beasts of England" need to unite, rise against all humans, and live as equals. Sooner than expected, the animals have run Jones off and taken the farm, but only to find him being replaced by Napoleon the pig, a tyrant far greater than they had ever experienced under Jones. From the British animation studio of Halas and Batchelor, "Animal Farm" is an adaptation of George Orwell's modern classic parable dispelling the myths of Stalinist Russia. Although the film does often bear too close a resemblance to a Merry Melodies cartoon, and the ending is given a slight happy twinge, it is refreshing such excoriating material presented in the animated form, which is superbly drawn to boot.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cold Mountain

After being gravely wounded at the Siege of Petersburg, a southern farmhand abandons the hopeless Confederate cause and begins a perilous trek back home to North Carolina to reunite with his woman, a beautiful preachers daughter tending the land only with the help of a pugnacious friend. "Cold Mountain" is sumptuous film that captures the cruelty and bleakness of war, on several fronts, as well as the longing for love, and places them against the beautiful backdrop of the south. Many have complained that the film keeps its stars apart for too much of the film, but this provides director Anthony Minghella the opportunity to make not one, but two great films: one showing the arduous life of a rebel soldier then deserter, and the other depicting life on the homestead, and the hardships faced by those beset by the vultures that times of war bring. Adapted from Charles Frazier's novel and featuring an absolutely stunning palette (much of which was shot in Romania) including the extraordinary opening battle sequence, the film is a wonder on several different levels. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are excellent in the leads and Renee Zellwegger turns in a winning, if somewhat over the top performance in her Oscar winning role. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi, Natalie Portman, and Ray Winstone are memorable in supporting roles, and the soundtrack is likewise excellent featuring Alison Krauss and Jack White, the latter of whom appears in the film. The late Minghella had a gift for crafting superior romances that transcended the soppy muck we've been accustomed too. "Cold Mountain" is a transcendent, heart rending film that functions superbly on so many different levels.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rock of Ages

A country girl set out for Hollywood to pursue her rock 'n' roll fantasy and finds love on the strip with anmaspiring singer who barbacks at the Bourbon, just as rock legend/train wreck Stacee Jaxx plans to resurrect the faltering establishment as he kicks off his solo tour. "Rock of Ages" plays like an episode of Glee meets Monster Ballads I and II meets a two hour trip to the dentist. I may not be the best person qualified to review this movie, as I'm from the generation wedged in between the two this is aiming for, but unless you have some great affinity for the 1980s or enjoy listening to actors butcher songs that weren't that great to begin with, you may want to stay away. "Rock of Ages" is glitzy, mind numbing, and almost intolerable if not for a few fleeting moments involving pros like Tom Cruise, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Bryan Cranston who serve as some sort of Novocaine, temporarily dulling the pain while you still feel your teeth being ground away at. They do get one thing right here, in that Journey line about the movie never ending and going on and on and on and on.

The Lion in Winter

King Henry II, settled into middle age but not yet willing to chose a successor, summons his wife from prison, where she is serving time for plotting against him with their son. Now, with the King of Phillip in tow, who hopes to precure a husband for his sister, who also serves as Henry's mistress, the exiled Queen begins to stir the pot and urge Henry's three sons to seize the throne. "The Lion in Winter" is a spectacular screen adaptation of James Goldman's stage play by director Anthony Harvey who wonderfully opens up this intelligent material for the screen. Reprising his role from "Becket", Peter O'Toole plays an older and wiser, yet no less thunderous Henry II, and it is remarkable just how different these two powerful performances are. Katharine Hepburn is equally fine in one of her Oscar winning roles as his treacherous wife and the scenes they share together, particularly the closing ones, are truly a wonder to watch. The supporting parts are also great, with Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton both shining in early roles. "The Lion in Winter" is literate, powerful, and impeccably acted entertainment.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus

Several scores into the future a cave drawing in Mesopotamia, predating any ever found, as been discovered, and whose consellatory figures point to an earthlike galaxy many light years away. A team of scientists and engineers led by a righteous doctor (Noomi Rapace), backed by a corporation run by an icy blond (Charlize Theron), and equipped with a lifelike, ultra intelligent cyborg (Michael Fassender) now embark on a perilous journey to the distant planet in hopes of discovering the origins of life. "Prometheus" is a stunning achievement from enduring director Ridley Scott who sets his film in the same world of "Alien", but succeeds in crafting a deeper science-fiction. From the intelligent screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof to the unbelievable special effects and camerawork, which act as a breath of fresh air in this age of glossy visuals, the films is a triumph on every level. The cast as well is excellent with Rapace and Theron purveying different elements of Signourney Weaver's Ripley and Michael Fassbender again contributing another remarkable role as David, a humanoid modelling himself on Peter O'Toole's "Lawrence of Arabia". Fassbender's performance channels Hal from Kubrick's "2001", the roguish and eeriely human robot, and it is amazing how he can inject just the right amount of mortal touches into the part. My one complaint here is how closely the movie references "Alien", mostly just in the final revelatory scene. Of all the movies, "The Tree of Life" came to mind when I was watching this, whose themes and subject may not be quite so different as appears at first glance. Both films are highly ambitious and have caused a rift in viewers, but for detractors of Scott's film I want to pose a question similar to the one I asked of those who didn't approve of Terrence Malick's masterwork: How can someone not connect to such a well-made, well-acted, thrilling, and far-reaching film, at least on one of these levels?

A Star is Born

A young woman leaves her home for Hollywood where, after a series of disappointments and hardships, her career is given a lift thanks to the intervention of a fading, alcoholic star. As the two begin a courtship and eventually a marriage, the starlet's skyrocketing fame soon becomes too much for her now forgotten husband. Producer David O. Selznick and Director William William's Hollywood exposé surprisingly acerbic considering it came from a 1930s studio, and certainly more caustic than the 1954 George Cukor remake featuring Judy Garland and James Mason (although I think I favor that version). Here, Janet Gaynor as the green and starry eyed Esther and Frederic March as the suave but insecure Norman, both set the bar with excellent and moving performances. "A Star is Born" tells of two deeply felt individuals in a heartless industry, told in a stirring and romantic manner.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tight Spot

The D.A. pulls a tough talking blonde from the penitentiary and holes her up in a downtown hotel in an attempt to get her to testify against a mobster who has just wiped out the last person called to the task. With a young policeman guarding her, the reluctant woman finds herself coming around as numerous attempts on her life are made. "Tight Spot" is a 1950s B-picture and near miss thanks in large part to the off-putting performance of the usually magnetic Ginger Rogers, who tries to channel Judy Holliday's dumb blonde from "Born Yesterday". Edward G. Robinson is solid as usual in a limited role as the district attorney but Rogers, the focal point of the story, does not have the dramatic ability to carry the already lackluster material to the heights it needs to go.

Veep

Season 1
The first female Vice President of the United States, early into her first term, quickly learns the truth about her ineffectual post as she also deals with Washington backbiting, pettiness, and corruption while dealing with the almost total ineptitude of her staff as well as her own vanity. "Veep" is a comedic HBO series from Armando Iannucci, the writer/director of "In The Loop", who presents this show in the exact same unctuous fashion which again comes off as an unbalanced work with smarminess and unpleasantness outweighing genuine laughs.  As the beleaguered VP, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is absolutely outstanding and more than carries the show during its lackluster moments. Tony Hale and Matt Walsh are also bright spots in an otherwise dour cast. "Veep" is an occasionally amusing series that seems familiar with its repugnant political setting, which is surprising in how little it mines from it.
** 1/2

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Love and Death

In early 19th Century Russia, neurotic peasant Boris inadvertently becomes a war hero during the French invasion, wins a duel against a noble cuckold, and becomes involved in an assassination plot against Napoleon with his distant cousin, whom he greatly longs for. "Love and Death" is a rambling but funny early Woody Allen film. With the expected constant barrage of one liners, the film is given cinematic weight by the wonderful visuals and a score made from the works of Sergei Prokofiev. Diane Keaton, in her third pairing with Woody and last before they made "Annie Hall", is fun as the flaky object of his desires reciprocate the sentiment. "Love and Death" is enjoyable and considerably light considering the material. In it you can see Woody getting his footing and planting the seeds that would sprout into his subsequent masterpieces.

A Man for All Seasons

When King Henry VII directs his Roman Catholic Chancellor Thomas Moore to write the Pope to secure an annulment for his first marriage with Catherine of Aragon, Moore refuses to go along. When the King finally breaks from the Church, and Moore continues to support his actions, the crown uses deceit and treachery to convict the steadfast chancellor of treason. "A Man for All Seasons" is Fred Zinnemann's literate and powerful screen adaptation of Robert Bolt's play, that is found on a stellar, Oscar winning performance from Paul Scofield, also recreating his stage part. Robert Shaw also has a memorable turn as the bawdy Henry VII. Bolt's screenplay is a tricky dance of semantics that is pulled off swimmingly by Scofield, Shaw, and the rest of the cast, with the rest of the film given great elevation by the legendary Zinneman, who does a great job in opening up the materal.  The final courtroom scene, featuring Scofield's scornful speech against the actions of the crown, is one of great potency. "A Man for All Seasons" is a great play adaptation and a testament to a man whose courage and faith helped him triumph over a treacherous tyrant.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Alien

On the way home from their latest expedition, the worn and weary crew of the space cruiser Nostromo is sent to investigate a distress signal on a neighboring planet. There a foreign creature attaches itself to a crew member's countenance, who is then brought back to the ship's operating room. A severe breach of protocol done explicitly against the orders of crew member Ripley. Soon, the creature has planted its in and imploded through its host chest, and begins to wreak havoc on the team. But, even more frightening than the implication of this unrelenting and indestructible being is the notion that it may have been working with cohoots with someone on the ship. With the release of "Prometheus", a film director Ridley Scott has said inhabits the same world as "Alien", I decided to revisit that 1979 masterwork, a film which I had regards for but certainly did not hold in esteem with my favorite and most chilling horror films. Watching this brooding, claustrophic, and terrifying film over, I realized how mistaken I was in not initially recognizing the brilliance in what Scott had created. "Alien" is a multifaceted champion, containing excellent direction, eerie sound effects, and impressive, believeable, and real special effects. It contains an impressive cast of character actors (John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt) with Sigourney Weaver delivering her iconic role and bringing believeability to that rugged and resilient character. "Alien" is, for better or worse, one of the most influential works of its kind  whose reputation has been cheapened through mostly unworthy sequels ("Aliens" is excellent) and the schlock which it has inspired. Watching it again, nothing can diminish its harrowing effect and if this was ever rereleased theatrically I would jump at the chance to see it on the big screen with my hands clenched in the dark.

Saraband

Marianne addresses the camera directly and asks whether or not she should visit her ex-husband Johann, whom she has not seen in almost 30 years, and answers almost immediately in the affirmative. Travelling to his cabin in the woods where he now resides, the couple picks up where they left off as if no time has passed and begin to ruminate their lives while becoming involved in a scenario with Johann's son and his unhealthy relationship with his prodigious teenage daughter. In the final statement of his abounding career as a director, Ingmar Bergman reunites his characters 30 years following "Scenes from a Marriage". Now in the twilight of their lives, Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson once more give tender and consummate performances as a couple who long ago ended their marriage but have still managed to maintain their friendship and even attraction. When Ullman and Josephson grace the screen "Saraband" is wonderful and intelligent film, and a touching tribute to the legendary director whom they both worked under at length. When the story involving Johann's son and grandaughter takes center stage, it is (unsurprisingly) less engaging as we await for the two stars to reappear. "Saraband" is a moving and fitting both to a wonderful story as well as an unsurpassed career.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On the Waterfront

An ex-prizefighter (Marlon Brando) and underling for a waterfront crime lord (Lee J. Cobb) witnesses a murder which he unknowingly helped stage and is instructed by his mob attorney brother (Rob Steiger), among others, to keep his mouth shut. However, after the interventions of a stubborn parish priest (Karl Malden) and the affections of a sweet college girl (Eva Marie Saint) and kin to the deceased, the underachieving Terry Malloy begins to have doubts and considers testifying for the Crime Commission. "On the Waterfront" is Elia Kazan's stark and gritty masterpiece which can also be seen as his defense for his 1952 testimony for the House Un-American Activities Committee which made him an outcast in Hollywood and left many people out of a job. The film features an intelligent and tough script from Budd Schulberg and Kazan successfully captures the local flavor of his subject. The acting is extraordinary, beginning with Brando in a career defining role that won him his first Oscar and assured his stature as an international film star. Saint is great in her introductory role that also garnished an Academy Award and Cobb, Steiger, and Malden are all powerfully intense in their own respective ways. "On the Waterfront" is an undeniable classic: an uncompromising look at an underworld life, lost opportunities, and ultimately, redemption.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bernie

From the moment Bernie Tiede took a job as an assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, he became the most liked man in town. Intensely likable, a consummate professional at his job, and generous with his money and time. Especially when it came to the old widows of the men he buried. When a local tycoon dies, Bernie befriends his icy wife and soon becomes her travelling companion and soon her insecurities and wickedness lead him to commit a crime unthinkable by himself and his beloved townspeople. "Bernie" is a true-to-life story to in black comedy fashion from dexterous director Richard Linklater and features a meaty lead role for Jack Black, one that allows him to show off his considerable talents, and the likes of which that hasn't been made readily available during his acting career. Shirley MacLaine turns in a good performance as well as the steely bitch who soon dominates Black's life and Matthew McConaughey is humorous also as a showboating district attorney. Linklater also peppers the film with commentary from what I believe are locals who are familiar with the case, and it is in these moments that the film finds its greatest moments of humor and insight. Richard Linklater is one our most versatile and underrated directors, two adjectives that may go hand in hand. With "Bernie", he has found levity and  affecting insight in a case that would have been depicted on the news strictly as a tragedy.

Stalker

The title refers to a guide who is familiar with a shape shifting, mystical, and highly volatile area known as The Zone, which has been condemned and sealed off by the government. The stalker now leads a dangerous expedition with a scientist and a writer to delve deep into The Zone's magical room, where it is said that wishes can be granted, but the journey towards it will not only test their physical endurance, but also their spiritual sides as well. "Stalker" is a plodding and protracted philosophical film from legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. While the camera work and direction here are excellent, the movie is overlong, bombastic, and inert. I hate using words like tedious, boring, and the like, especially with a filmmaker as well received as Tarkovsky but while the film is an endurance test for the characters' wills, it was an equally taxing trial of my patience.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Hatfields & McCoys

Towards the close of the Civil War, Anse Hatfield sees the hopelessness of the Southern Cause and deserts his unit to return to his home in West Virginia, an offense deemed unforgivable by his friend and Kentucky neighbor Randall McCoy. Thus begins the infamous feud between the two families made famous by it, which left many members of both parties slain to its cause, most of whom could not even pinpoint its own origin. "Hatfields & McCoys" is a slight and crude miniseries distributed by the History Channel and given great weight by its stars Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, both excellent in representing the title families. It is when these two are not gracing the screen, which is more often then not, that we are treated to less intriguing characters and a mundane storytelling treatment. The Hatfield and McCoy feud is a tragic tale of bloodlust and blind vengeance that holds repercussions until this day and, despite the fine performances by Costner and Paxton, is due a better  treatment.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

The Queen has her King the fairest daughter in all the land, but following Her Majesty's death, a great darkness has washed over him and his kingdom. When an army of inanimate creatures lays siege, the King defeats them in battle and frees their prisoner, a beautiful woman who temporarily frees him of his sorrows. Soon he makes her his Queen and is murdered for his troubles at which point his daughter is removed to the tower holding cell. Soon, the beautiful Snow White has escaped to the Dark Forest, and the wicked Queen sics a skilled huntsman to retrieve her, knowing that she is the key to her own immortality. "Snow White and the Huntsman" is a serviceable adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale told in a dark and pretty violent manner. Some reviewers have praised the film for its breathtaking visuals although, while they are occasionally stunning, they suffer from the same cheap digital look that has plagued many recent films. Still, this is fairly enjoyable entertainment with Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth game in lead roles (I thought Charlize Theron, who sports a British accent as the villain, was off) and a slew of British character actors (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Ray Winstone, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson) cast as the dwarfs. Also, the final siege on the Queen's Castle can only be described as rollicking. I think it was the look of the film that bothered me, and the thought of what could have been a much fairer film.  Instead we are given just a fair treatment thanks to the use of the now overrun digital format.

James Levine: America's Maestro

James Levine has been the conductor for the Metropolitan Opera for over 40 years where he has transformed the establishment to its current status, while keeping to a rigorous regiment overseeing some of the top works in opera today. "America's Maestro" is a rare and exclusive look into the brilliant master's life as he, in spite of chronic back pain, prepares for his latest performance and takes part in his mentoring program for young, struggling singers. This recent entry into the "American Masters" canon is a fascinating profile look at an endlessly talented man, from his early tutelage under George Szell, director of the Cleveland Orchestra, to his transformation of the Met at the ripe young age of 28, where he has remained until this day. Levine's spirit and talent is demonstrated clearly on the screen, and this wonderful documentary is a testament to them.