Tuesday, July 31, 2012

8 1/2

While lacking inspiration for his latest sci-fi picture an agitated movie director delves deep into memory and fantasy while fielding complaints from his wife, mistress, stars, and producer. "8 1/2" is legendary director Federico Fellini's autobiographical (the title refers to the number of films he made to that point) and incredibly influential masterpiece. Told in free flow form, the movie blends fantasy, memory, and reality until the line is blurred between all three, resulting in a carnival like atmosphere, directed to the highest sensibilities of an art house picture and abetted by a delightful score from Nino Rota. Fresh off their success in "La Dolce Vita", Marcello Mastroianni reteamed with Fellini and delivers another sly, perfectly realized performance as the frustrated Fellini proxy. "8 1/2" is an almost indescribable picture that, although its reconstruction has been attempted by numerous others, would seem impossible to have been made by anyone else.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Total Recall

As a conglomerate wrestles of control of the Mars' atmosphere with the local population in a futuristic 21st century, a construction worker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) decides to take a mental vacation as a government agent to the Red Planet and has a travel chip implanted in his brain. Strangely however, just before the procedure is performed, he has a mental breakdown and flashes back to the exact memories which he intends to have implanted! Actually a brainwashed superspy, he now finds himself on the run from a series of government assassins as he travels to our neighboring planet to discover the truth behind his current situation. Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall" is a relentlessly violent and entertaining science fiction action picture from the short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by the late Philip K. Dick, who seems to responsible for many of the great sci-fi flicks from the past thirty years ("Blade Runner", "Minority Report"). The film brings plausible logic to its grossly improbable plot, and like its lead character, you are never quite sure just exactly what is going on, which is all played to great effect. A lot of this success can be contributed to Arnold's commanding believability. Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox also make effective baddies. "Total Recall" is impressive in both its medley ambitious material and breakneck pace. While events spiral somewhat out of control towards the end of the picture, I found this to be a fun and surprisingly challenging motion picture.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

An Idiot Abroad

Series 1
Mostly for a lark, British comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant decided to send Karl Pilkington, mutual friend and cohost of their popular podcast, on an extensive tour of Seven of the World's Wonders. From the Great Wall of China, to the Great Pyramids, all the way to Machu Picchu, the exceedingly domestic Pilkington experiences world culture in various and often brutal methods. While not being nearly as humorous as Gervais and Merchant's other efforts, "An Idiot Abroad" makes for a competent travelogue that features some exquisite footage with Pilkington making an endearing if prosaic guide.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Culloden/The War Game

In the mid-60s, BBC filmmaker Peter Watkins crafted two unflinching documentary style recreations of war, one on the small scale of an 18th century battle and the other on the effects of nuclear detonation, depicting the all encompassing horrors that surround these disparate conflicts. "Culloden" depicts the 1746 effort which marked the last ditch effort of the Jacobite Rebellion in the Scottish Highlands and the British troops efforts to eliminate those said people through economic warfare. Watkins' follow-up was the Oscar winning "The War Game" which, in exacting and vividly descriptive detail, demonstrates the firsthand results of nuclear war. Presenting both staged films as if a documentary crew were present, interviewing the participants and victims, while capturing the unfolding events, Watkins and his crew capture the larger horrors while providing the lesser thought of consequences of these radically different forms of conflict. In "Culloden" and "The War Game", Watkins presented two harrowing, all encompassing anti-war statements.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jesse Owens

From Cleveland, Ohio, Jesse Owens was a track and field star who, following a successful career at The Ohio State University, went on to Olympic glory at Berlin in 1936 where he won an astounding four gold medals and spit in the eye of Hitler's notion of Aryan supremacy. His entry in the American Experience catalog is a surprisingly short but well rounded account nonetheless that does an excellent job of documenting both his triumphs and tribulations that may have gotten lost in his Olympic legend. 

The Dream Team

For the Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992 it was determined that the United States could enter NBA players for the first time resulting in what was to be referred to as the greatest assembly of basketballers in history. With stars in their twilight such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird passing the torch to the next generation of talent including Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, the focus lied not on whether of not the dubbed Dream Team would win, but on the incredible spectacle they brought to those Summer Games. "The Dream Team" is a documentary by NBA Films that goes to great lengths to justify this colossal mismatch, and struggles to find anything of interest in this lazy and boring documentary. Instead we are left with the record of a bunch of entitled millionaires' summer vacation and how they manhandled their international competition.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Haunting

A mentally imbalanced young woman is invited to an east coast manor to accompany a pair of scientists and the heir of the estate in an attempt to determine the presence of paranormal activity on the property. Soon, despite the initial reticence of the group members following the unstable woman's initial sightings, it soon appears that sinister otherworldly forces are at play. "The Haunting" is a highly revered haunted house film from acclaimed Hollywood director Robert Wise. From the Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, Wise's film is extremely well mounted and directed, but is largely marred by the lead performance of Julie Harris, whose manic histrionics greatly wear on the audience. The film also seems to drag during the middle portion, but wraps spectacularly during its climactic parlor scene. "The Haunting" has a reputation as being a standard among haunted house films, and if you focused solely on its staging and direction, it earns this status.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Bicycle Thief

Vittorio De Sica's 1948 classic film is both resounding and simple and a prime example of Italian Neorealism, a style of film set amongst the poor and made largely with non-actors. Set in post-WW2 Rome, a destitute man finally gets a job plastering advertisements around the city, which requires him to use a bicycle. Feeling he will not be able to afford one and thus taking the job anyway, his wife pawns their reserve of bed sheets to provide enough cash for a bike, which in turn gets stolen on his first day of work. He then begins his search, with his young son it tow, to locate the thief and crucial stolen item. "The Bicycle Thief" is an ultimately sad film that makes statements on poverty and crime while leaving a lasting impression. It is a work to be seen and a lasting work of beatific simplicity.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Johnny Carson: King of Late Night

In a salt mine under Hutchinson, Kansas lie the copies of over 4,500 episodes of The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson, placed there at the behest of the iconic television emcee. Over a career spanning 30 years, Carson, alongside his sidekick Ed McMahon, became an endeared staple to Americans, netting audiences of over 15 million viewers a night at his peak, almost double what today's late night guys rake in today. "Johnny Carson: King of Late Night" is a thorough and immensely engrossing dissection of the entertainer's life and career, who was known as a relae tively shy person until he got in front of camera and transformed into probably the most charismatically enduring  performer television has ever known. His friends and family members speak on his life, which was not untouched by controversy, while modern comics whom he gave their big break to, as well as those who have tried to take up his mantle, speak on his influence. The only marring detail here is Kevin Spacey's narration, which would be irrelevant, except for the fact that his elocution draws so much attention off the material and to himself. Carson's career on television was one that provided joy and relief to millions every night and whose personal life may not have been so  simple, charming and easy going. "King of Late Night" does an excellent job depicting an unsimplified view of an icon.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bottle Rocket

A highly organized neurotic (Owne Wilson) convinces his two friends (Luke Wilson, Robert Musgrave) to rob a book store and then lam at an out of the way hotel in a desolate part of Texas. There while one of the friends falls in love with a kindly maid (Lumi Cavazos), the criminal mastermind plots with a local crime boss (James Caan) for their next big score. "Bottle Rocket" is the amusing and flighty directorial debut from Wes Anderson, which he cowrote with Owen Wilson, who shines in the lead role as the socially challenged Dignan. I've never found his brother Luke to be in possession of the same charismatic charm, and this also premier film debut is no exception. "Bottle Rocket" tends to wander and its material is not very demanding, but it is pleasant and humorous in that particular whimsical way which Anderson would develop and cultivate over the years.
note: On the Criterion DVD, you can view the original "Bottle Rocket" short also featuring Anderson and the Wilson brothers. Made in 199, it is basically a 12 minute black and white microcosm of the film.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hush Puppy, an irrepressible 6-year-old, and her widowed and sickly father, patrol the bayou for fish in a motorized truck bed. Soon she will be confronted with the realities (and unrealites) caused by the shifting polar ice caps which plague her community with a massive hurricane and extinct prehistoric land creatures. Physically removed from her home and confronted with her dad's illness, Hush Puppy sets off to find her mother, whom she sees as a beacon of light on the horizon. "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is the debut film of Benh Zeitlin which is replete with staggeringly beautiful imagery and contains a knockout performance by its young actress in Quvenzhane Wallisand. However, it is marred by the lack of a narrative drive, which makes it feel long even at 91 minutes and, more importantly,  the conflicted nature of the relationship between the young girl and her neglectful brute of a father, with whom we are supposed to be in sympathy with. I had a difficult time commiserating with the characters when they are removed from their diseased ridden homes by government officials and could muster up even less for this repellant father figure, especially during soppy latter scenes. I really wanted to love this film. It is probably the most gorgeously rendered one of its kind since "The Tree of Life", with which it has more than a few things in common. I just couldn't go along with its confused plot or find sympathy in its brutish and stubborn characters.

Friday, July 20, 2012

All Quiet on the Western Front

A group of classmates are roused by an impassioned speech by their teacher about the glories of the fatherland, and set off to fight for their beloved Germany before discovering the true horrors of war. "All Quiet on the Western Front" is an unrelenting and wide ranging antiwar masterpiece that depicts not only the atrocities of battle, but also the rigors, the starvation, and even the boredom that accompanied a band of German soldiers during World War I. Lewis Milestone does a remarkable and even innovative job translating Erich Maria Remarque's novel, and never once even dreams of softening his antiwar message. Lew Ayres, whom much of the story centers around, is strongly affecting especially in the tragically poignant closing scenes. "AQOTWF" is probably the most effective antiwar film ever made because it eliminates all the elements that may glamorize battle, and depicts the all encompassing ugliness and agony that is war.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

A minuscule family of "Borrowers" live beneath the floorboards of a country home, where they take very basic and irrelevant scraps from the inhabitants by which they survive. Consisting of Arrietty and her two parents, their lives are changed forever when the young girl is discovered by a sickly young boy staying on the premises, and the cruel housekeeper catches wind of the discovery. "The Secret World of Arrietty" is a wonderful children's film from Studio Ghibli and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Written by legendeary animator Hayao Miyazaki from the beloved novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton, the film retains much of his style and sensibility and offers quite a delightful and engrossing tale. I did something I almost never do, and watched this not in the original language and I was glad to find that the English voice actors do justice to the material. The young Bridgit Mendler is a good match for Arrietty, Amy Poehler and Will Arnett serve well as her parents, and Carol Burnett is absolutely wonderful as the sadistic and half-crocked housekeeper. "The Secret World of Arrietty" successfully translates a cherished story and does so with grace, warmth, and art. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Okay. Where to begin? "The Dark Knight" would be a tough act for anyone to follow and Christopher Nolan's final installment in his Batman trilogy isn't a disappointment in the traditional way we think of. Basically, there are only a few ways to follow such a quantifiable success such as TDK and they are make a lesser movie, make an original movie, or make a balls out, relentlessly assaultive, nonstop, over-the-top, epic length blockbuster that barely lets you breathe. You can probably guess which one the filmmakers opted for. Working with his brother Jonathan and David S. Goyer, the same team that developed the first two films, Nolan delivers a spectacular film with a less than inspired script. Now following eight years of relative harmony in Gotham, Batman is still playing the fall guy for Harvey Dent's crimes while living in seclusion at Wayne manor. Now, the League of Shadows sense the time is ripe to hatch chaos and destruction, sending the brutal Bane (Tom Hardy) and his gang of miscreants (seemingly lifted from the Occupy Gotham movement) to get the job done. Meanwhile Gordon is injured on the job, one of his intuitive young detectives (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) takes some initiative, a humanist (Marion Cotillard) becomes involved in a massive environmental deal with Wayne Enterprises, and Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) shows her claws. Again, Christian Bale plays a diminutive role and even during the overlong running time of the film, it seems like we hardly see him on screen. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return adding very little to the table this time around as they troubleshoot and offer cautionary advice. An unrecognizable and largely incomprehensible Hardy is appropriately menacing, but hardly fills the large shoes left by Heath Ledger. There are also major problems with the two major female additions to the cast. Both of their relationships to Wayne are poorly realized and nonsensical, and as for Hathaway, I still cannot understand how someone can be so good at parts and so off-puttingly horrendous at others, and her wild inconsistencies greatly affect the film. Also, a major plot twist towards the end of the picture qualifies as both lame and cheating. Another point is how well things wrap up in the finale, only for the filmmakers to cop out and offer a patted, sequel promising ending. Don't get me wrong, there are some really fine set pieces here, and I think I was the only one in the theater who wasn't whooping when THE DARK KNIGHT RISES finally flashed on the screen at the conclusion. During the proceedings though, as was the case with "Inception", I again felt like Alex from "A Clockwork Orange" with my eyes bolstered open as I was bombarded by endless amounts of sound and fury for nearly three hours.

Birdsong

A brooding young officer tersely leads his men in the trench warfare during the First Great War while he reflects on a doomed affair he undertook with the Parisian wife of his former employer just before the conflict broke out. "Birdsong" is an adequate television adaptation of Sebastian Faulks novel with beautiful scenery, both of prewar Paris and in the horrific trenches, that bolsters the film during its more laconic moments. Also proving serviceable is star Eddie Redmayne, who made a rather negative impression on me when I first noticed him in last year's "My Week with Marilyn." The greatest flaw with the film is actress Clemence Poesy, whose poor performance as the petulant love interest makes the affair (and these segments of the film) seem hardly worth the trouble. However, the scenes with Redmayne and his boys at battle are sumptuously filmed and raise some interesting points of honor and courage in the face of a futile war.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The English Patient

Reeling from the harrows of battle and the loss of yet another one of her friends, a Canadian nurse stationed in Italy during World War II decides to remain behind at a bombed out, abandoned monastery with a badly burned, unidentified soldier. Given the title moniker due to his accent, the patient's amnesia gradually reveals his identity as a Hungarian Count and the events, including a doomed affair with his coworker's wife, that led to his current predicament. "The English Patient" is a sumptuous and strange film that magnificiently weaves its story in a manner that dies any and all traditional romantic storytelling modes. Made by the late and vastly underrated Anthony Minghella, adapting himself from Michael Ondaatje's novel, he manages to capture the sweep of the material while striking at the heart of the character's including their tenuous moral choices. Ralph Fiennes is excellent in the title role, playing the Count both in the past and as the present burnt specimen. Kristin Scott Thomas is great also, playing the wife of Fienne's coworker, with whom he has an ill-fated love affair. Also Juliette Binoche is absolutely splendid as the sweet but worn nurse who nurse Fiennes back to health. Rounding out the cast, Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth, and Lost's Naveen Andrews all have memorable bits. "The English Patient" is a well rounded and moving romance, reaches and attains so much more than we've come to expect from the genre.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Bound

An ex-convict and self-sufficient lesbian (Gina Gershon) secures a job renovating an apartment next door to a vicious, mid level mobester (Joe Pantoliano) and his sultry moll (Jennifer Tilly), to whom she shares a fiery and mutual attraction. After spending the night together, the two women determine to lift the 2 million dollars the gangster has stashed in his digs as part of a separate deal, leading them down a twisty and harrowing night of violence and desperation. Before the Wachowksi's fashioned their immensively successful Matrix trilogy, they debuted with this sleek and seriously sexy, gut wrenching noir that became famous for its sex scene, but succeeds at being so much more. Gershon and Tilly dazzle in the lead roles who are not only libidinous but are also tough and competent. Pantoliano nearly walks away with the entire show as the psychotic gangster, in a role that had to of guaranteed his casting on "The Sopranos". With "Bound", the Wachowski's disproved that these kind of B-pictures need to be schlocky, excessive, and artless and proves that they can certainly rise above themselves.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mr. Hulot's Holiday

Here the title sufficiently sums up the plot: the clumsy, gangly, and kindly man takes his sabbatical in a French resort town where he wreaks havoc on the vacationing inhabitants. Jacques Tati's subtle, nearly silent observational comedy, in which he wrote, starred, and directed, introduced his Mr. Hulot character to the masses which simultaneously serves as a critique of the upper class, an homage to the silent comics, and a funny and breezy postcard. Although it would seem like this has gone largely unseen today, it still has served as an inspiration to many of today's comedians. I was in a foul mood when I watched this recently and was initially frustrated with its pacing. As it progressed, I was quickly placed under its spell as I was whisked away on Mr. Hulot's enchanting, picaresque vacation.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Ricky Gervais Show

Season 1 (2010)
Season 2 (2011)
Season 3 (2012)
Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington are in the Guiness Book of World Records for having their podcast downloaded the most times. In 2010, they decided to have these podcasts animated and turn it into a 13 half hour episode series which mainly consists of Gervais and his The Office and Extras collaborator rip on their colleague Pilkington. The Ricky Gervais Show is excellent for two reasons. First it provides a window into the comic minds of Gervais and Merchant as well as Pilkington who truly is one of kind and a person whom I honestly cannot figure out whether his schtick is real or not. The second reason the show is successful is the animation of Andy Bialk. Done in the style of Hanna-Barbera, it imaginatively and humorously illustrates the musings of the trio including Pilkington's thoughts which Gervais often refers to as "bullocks" or "the ravings of a mad man." The fact that this kind of conceptual television show can be such a hilarious success is a tribute both to the animation of Bialk and the top tiered comic stylings of Gervais, Merchant, and the hilariously obtuse Pilkington.

Tokyo Story

An elderly couple leaves their seaside home for Tokyo, where they are treated like a nuisance and whisked away to a spa by their ungrateful children and only shown kindness to by their widowed daughter-in-law. Soon as they return home and the mother becomes deathly ill, it may too late for the children to mend their bonds with their ephemeral parents. "Tokyo Story" is a sad and stark film from the Japanese lengend Yasujiro Ozu, which holds a particular relevance in this day and age. Chisu Ryu and Cheiko Higashiyama turn in heartbreaking performances the aged couple who must come to terms with their selfish children before meeting their own demise. Setsuko Hara turns in an incredibly affecting performance as well playing the selfless widow. Ozu's films are simple and touching and require a certain frame of mind to appreciate. Admittedly, I was in the the kind of hurried state this film laments against and did not get all I should have out of it, which I certainly intend to do at a very near date.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Pink Panther

The notorious cat burglar known as The Phantom (David Niven) has eluded Paris police inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) for years, and the bumbling detective hasn't even the slightest clue as to his identity, probably because the thief's inside mole happen's to be his own wife (Capucine)! Now all three, along with The Phantom's shifty nephew (Robert Wagner) wind up at a French Chateau where the cat burglar plans to strike again, stealing the invaluable Pink Panther diamond belonging to a beautiful Middle Eastern princess (Claudia Cardinale). The first entry in the Pink Panther series isn't quite the gag filled laugh riot I remembered as a kid, with Peter Sellers barely being in it, playing more of a supporting role. David Niven adequately fills the void though playing the dashing burglar and Capucine and Claudia Cardinale are quite stunning in their roles. While the film tends to drag at times, it is highlighted by three late, wonderful sequences: first a boudoir mixup scene, then one at a costume party, which is culminated in a pretty great chase number. Though not as plentiful as remembered, "The Pink Panther" offers a few laughs, a lot of glamour, some well realized sequences, and of course the inimitable Peter Sellers, although in reduced form.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Savages

Two wildly disparate best friends, the brainy humanist (Aaron Johnson) and a belligerent ex-special forces operative (Taylor Kitsch) share the same breathtaking surfer chick (Blake Lively) while catching waves at Laguna Beach and manufacturing the most potent marijuana known to man. Soon, a Tijuana drug cartel  is interested in their services and when they refuse, they soon find themselves embroiled in a nightmare with their girl at the center, being held hostage by the ruthless banditos. It has been nearly two decades since Oliver Stone has made a superior motion picture (I would argue "Nixon" was his last) and he almost returns to form in this gritty violence heavy action picture that shies away from his usual brand of conspiratorial politics. "Savages'" greatest flaw is its central casting. I couldn't have cared about the fates of the two utterly unlikable male leads and frankly the same goes for Lively, who never succeeds at being anything beyond beautiful and whose pretentious, inane narration leaves sour notes on both ends of the film. Thankfully, the pictured is buoyed by its colorful supporting performances which include Benicio Del Toro as a barbarous enforcer, John Travolta as a crooked DEA, and Salma Hayek as the head of the cartel. "Savages" is rollicking for awhile, but doesn't know when to quit and contains one of those reprehensible double backed endings where the only thing revealed is the indecision of the filmmakers. For awhile, this feels like Stone's return to pure movie making, but ultimately it will get tossed on the heap with his mediocre outputs of the last 17 years.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Heaven Can Wait

The environmentally conscious, dimwitted quarterback for the L.A. Rams is involved a traffic accident just days before the Super Bowl when his guardian angel jumps the gun, and transports his soul from his body. Having been swindled of his longevity, the QB is now given another chance at life as a recently murdered, but not yet collected, tycoon. "Heaven Can Wait" is an almost by the numbers remake of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" and like its hero Joe Pendleton, it is a not too bright but very likable motion picture. Cowriting (with Elaine May), Codirecting (with Buck Henry - who plays his guardian angel), producing, and starring, Warren Beatty does a pretty stellar job of putting all the pieces together and crafting an enjoyable feature. Many of the colorful supporting roles are filled nicely: James Mason is excellent in the Mr. Jordan role, the executive in charge of the angels. Jack Warden is also great as Beatty's football coach and I also enjoyed Charles Grodin as his murderous yet feeble secretary. The women seemed miscast here. The lovely Julie Christie is off as the love interest and Dyan Cannon (who received an Oscar nod) seems to be hitting the wrong notes as Beatty's treacherous wife. There's virtually zero moments of inspiration or originality in "Heaven Can Wait". Instead, Beatty reworks a time tested movie into another enjoyable one. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Escape from New York

The crime rate in New York City has risen by over 400% and officials have decided to turn Manhattan into an penal colony, erecting a 50 foot wall around the island and lining it with explosives and armed policemen. Now nine years in the future, Air Force One has been hijacked en route to a peace conference, forcing the President to abandon the craft in his escape pod, leaving him to be taken hostage by the ruthless inhabitants of the colony. Now the only hope of freeing the president, and thus brokering world peace, is special forces convict Snake Plissken who's solo mission is to locate and extract the president before the conclusion of the police summit some 23 hours later. John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" beings with a compelling and promising 20-minute set-up which, as soon as Kurt Russell lands on the World Trade Center, at which point the film devolves immediately into an uninspired, vapid work where virtually nothing works and all the fun and life is sucked completely out of the film. As Plissken, Russell barely seems to be awake and sleepwalks his way through this bafflingly iconic role. Donald Pleasance is terribly miscast as the president and Ernest Borgnine is completely wasted in an underused role. Lee Van Cliff is strong as the hard edged police commissioner, but his role is quickly diminished, and I also liked Harry Dean Stanton, whose performance as a sketchy underworld leader is about the only thing element that breathes life into the final 85 minutes of this film. Carpenter is a wildly hit or miss director who has made his fair share of both veritable masterpieces and bonafide turkeys. The one has no place in being mentioned with the former.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Grey Gardens

In the early 70s Edith Bouvier Beale and her daugher, also Edie were discovered living in a tattered, raccoon invested mansion on Long Island and threatened with foreclosure until they were rescued by their immediate relative Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who paid the cost of the upkeep. Following the incident, documentary filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles documented the lives of the two eccentrics, in their 70s and 50s, who dance, sing, posture for the camera, and prattle on and on about their memories, dreams, and many, many regrets. "Grey Gardens" is a strange and sad documentary, that may be somewhat manipulative on the part of the directors, but really gets at the heart of these two lost and lonely souls.

An equally excellent film of the same name starring Jessica Lang and Drew Barrymore as big and little Edie was recently made for television and is also worth seeking out.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

To Rome with Love

A Roman traffic director informs us that he all that happens in the City of the Seven Hills and introduces us to  a series of unconnected stories in the enchanting city: an opera director (Woody Allen) travelling with his wife (Judy Davis) sees his next act in the prospective father-in-law (singer Fabio Armiliato) of his daughter (Alison Pill). An established architect (Alec Baldwin) encounters a younger one (Jesse Eisenberg) staying in the same flat he once did and gives him advice as he ponders cheating on his girfriend (Greta Gerwig) with a sultry actress (Ellen Page). Two young lovers both find themselves in inexplicable romantic scenarios, he with a gorgeous call girl (Penelope Cruz) and she with a famous movie star (Antonio Albanese). Finally, a blowhard middle class man (Roberto Benigni) inexplicably finds himself the most famous celebrity in town. "To Rome with Love" is the 43rd film from the durable and inimitable Woody Allen, and is a blithe love letter in yet another European megalopolis. The locations and photography look gorgeous, while the various stories are hit or miss, ranging from quite hilarious to mildly diverting. The segment involving Woody and his latest inspiration is probably the best and contains the most laughs. The one involving the two young lovers has its moments (Cruz is delightful) but carries on way too long before winding up at the expected conclusion. The segment involving the architects and the one with the schmuck achieving stardom are examples of juxtaposition done both well and poorly. Baldwin sort of exists offstage during Eisenberg and Page's affair and the results are actually pretty comical. Benigni's segment (which may be the most personal for Woody) is slightly amusing within itself, but doesn't mesh with the rest of the film, and again goes on for far too long. On the heels of "Midnight in Paris", people were expecting another masterpiece, which this is not. Again though, I feel that people are lowballing this film, simply because it is not one of his grandest works. With "To Rome with Love", Woody Allen has crafted an amusing and diverting film, yes not among his greats, but still one that no other person on the planet is capable of making.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Interrupters

Documentarian Steve James follows three ex-gang members who go out into the volatile neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago in efforts to prevent further violence which has engulfed it. As part of an intervention group known as CeaseFire, James captures these efforts over the course of a year that saw the city's violence spotlighted on the international stage, surrounding the beating death of high schooler Derrion Albert by his own classmates. Like his masterful "Hoop Dreams", James has a knack here for being in the right place at the right time (or rather the wrong place at the right time) and again captures seemingly improbable footage alongside some very human moments. The three subjects, the daughter of a famous gang leader, a young man wracked with guilt, and another who has settled comfortably into suburban life, are all engaging, honest about their past life, and pragmatic about their current occupations. "The Interrupters" does a solid job of staring the epidemic of gang violence in the face, and although I appreciated the courage and nobility of the members of CeaseFire, I questioned the group's usefulness as what is depicted during the lengthy film is a series of very minor victories.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

A lonely, out-of-place intern at a small Seattle journal embarks on a journey to a small town with three of her coworkers in search of a story: to interview a man who has placed a personal ad seeking someone to time travel with him. While her roommates pursue ulterior endeavors, the young woman answers the ad and feigns interest in the paranoid eccentric, as she gradually develops feelings for him. "Safety Not Guaranteed" is a funny, delightful, and surprisingly well crafted feature film debut from director Colin Trevorrow that features warm performances and an engaging premise that builds from a "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" jump off point. Aubrey Plaza shines in the lead role, and brings humanity to the kind of jaded, sarcastic young person roles that have grown tiresome recently. Mark Duplass, appearing in his umpteenth film this year, hits the right notes as the kooky grocery store clerk who believes he may have discovered the secrets to time travel. There is also an excellent subplot involving Jake Johnson who seeks out an ex-flame (Jenica Bergere) and helps his other nerdy intern lose his virginity (Karan Soni). "Safety Not Guaranteed" is quite simply a fun film (we are even given a time travel apparatus that may rival the Delorean) that is given even more weight by its fine performances and high film quality.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Saving Private Ryan

Following the tide turning yet devastating invasion of Normandy, among the slaughtered masses on Omaha Beach lies a private Ryan, the third member of his family to perish that week. Back in Washington, no less than General George Marshall deems it necessary to pull the last remaining Ryan brother out of combat, despite the fact that he lies deep behind enemy lines in an unknown locale. Leading the mission, along with a band of seven other combat worn soldiers, is Captain John Miller, and after one of their own is taken by enemy fire, the group begins to question the logic of their task. "Saving Private Ryan" is a wondrous technical achievement from Steven Spielberg and a resounding indebtedness to the men who served and died for our country in WWII. Beginning with the astounding opening 20+ minute battle sequence, Spielberg uses all his acumen and resources (which includes collaboration with historian Stephen E. Ambrose) to stage an exacting recreation, a marvel he is able to perpetuate for the film's duration. Although the cast is assembled along the lines of war movie stereotypes, the players are excellent nonetheless with standouts including Giovanni Ribisi as the unit's medic, Barry Pepper as a devout sniper, Matt Damon as the titular officer, and of course Tom Hanks as the group's stoic leader. The film's moralizing grows a bit wearisome after a point, but "Saving Private Ryan" remains a methodical and harrowing ode to our country's servicemen and on of the finest achievement's in Spielberg's predominant career.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Face in the Crowd

Beloved television star Andy Griffith died today and by coincidence I recently watched  his film debut that was miles away from his trademarked roles as the criminal defense attorney and sheriff of Mayberry. "A Face in the Crowd" tells the story of an Arkansas radio producer (Patricia Neal) visiting small town jail in search of personalities to display on her morning show of the same title. In the drunk tank, lying on the ground near his guitar, she finds the astringent, acid tongued Lonesome Rhodes who seems to be a natural fit for radio and an instant success. Soon he graduates from radio to television and leaves for New York, quickly becoming the most powerful man in television, and stopping at nothing to attain this status. Like "Network" which followed two decades later, Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd" is a vitriolic condemnation of the media and the monsters it creates that was ahead of its time. Reteaming with his "On the Waterfront" screenwriter Budd Schulberg, Kazan is unrelenting in his portrayal of corruption in what is another superbly concocted film from the legendary overseer. Griffith, in a role so caustic he never sought out a similar one again, is an absolute whirlwind who is actually frightening in his morbidity at times. Neal is likewise wonderful as the woman who helped create the monster, falls in love with him, and eventually realizes that she herself must put him down. The ending is also particularly powerful. Walter Matthau is, however, oddly disappointing playing the straight man. "A Face in the Crowd" seems intimately familiar with its media settings (cameos by Mike Wallace and Walter Winchell are a real treat) and spins a scary tale, not only because of how ruthless and amoral its lead character is, but also because of how plausible it could be.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Double Hour

A maid at a Turin hotel begins a relationship with a security guard she meets at a speed dating convention. While showing off the gorgeous country home he protects, burglars intrude and make off with a hefty score while killing the guard in the process. Distraught, the woman soon finds herself in even more interminable circumstances before winding up in a coma and having a new light shone on the whole situation. "The Double Hour" is a manipulative dream movie, the likes of which has become fashionable and ever so tired in recent years, and by the time the rug was finally lifted I was already way beyond caring. The movie is buoyed slightly by some occasionally stellar photography  and a fine performance from Filippo Timi playing the somber security guard.

I.M. Pei: Building China Modern

I.M. Pei is one of the foremost and respected of the modern architects, with his unique buildings gracing many of the world's finest cities, from the Louvre Pyramid in Paris to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH. Now well into his 90s, in 2009 he was commissioned for what was to be a final, challenging and deeply personal project: In the antiquated village of Suzhou, where he also spent his childhood, Pei is to build a museum that introduces his modern vision while still retaining the ancient aesthetics of the area. "Builing China Modern" is an informative and in depth profile that tells Pei's life story and follows the renowned master over the course of a year as he plots and builds his grand acheivement.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Immortals

A ferocious and slighted king seeks to to obtain the Bow of Epirus (a golden gun of sorts) and unearth the gargantuan immortals layers below the earth to reek havoc on the gods and the rest of civilization. The only obstacle in his path towards destruction is a lowly mason who has formed an army following the death of his mother and the visions of an oracle. "Immortals" is a triumph of style over substance and another visual wonder by Tarsem Singh who has built quite a repertoire even if this entry doesn't quite add up to his previous achievements in "The Cell" and "The Fall". The cast is affable and I liked both Henry Cavill and Mickey Rourke as the opposing forces. John Hurt makes a welcome appearance also as a human representation of Zeus. "Immortals" is silly, over-the-top, and longish but never ceases to be boring thanks in large part to Tarsem's luscious, stylistic treatment.