Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Spirit of the Beehive

On the Castilian Planes in 1940, a group of children mob the local distribution truck as it delivers the latest film to town: a print of James Whale's "Frankenstein". After the screening, a mesmerized little girl (Ana Torrent), who is also dealing with her emotionally distant parents (Fernando Fernan Gomez and Teresa Gimpera), listens to her sister's (Isabel Telleria) explanations of the movie monster being a spirit, and soon sets off to the nearby mountainside to seek out the beast. "The Spirit of the Beehive" is a sumptuous work detailing a story of childhood longing set in the early day's of Franco's takeover. Victor Erice's film moves at its own pace, features a wonderful performance from young Torrent, and is filmed on one of the most gorgeous color palettes ever presented on the big screen. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Girl

While working out some of the particulars for "The Birds", his larger and supposedly more frightening follow-up to "Psycho", at the breakfast table with his wife Alma (Imelda Staunton), Alfred Hitchcock (Toby Jones) glimpses a stunning blonde actress named Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) on television and immediately arranges to meet her. Soon she is offered the much coveted role and, after refusing his sexual advances, finds herself the victim of his continued cruelty which evolves into a sort of inexplicable masochism when she signs on again to star in "Marnie". Julian Jarrold's TV biopic "The Girl" features some great behind-the-scenes detail regarding the shooting of these latter Hitchcock films, and features a spot-on performance from Jones and an appropriately icy one from Miller. However, the film unnecessarily (and possibly unfairly) demythologizes the great Master of Suspense and, like its subjects, is frigid to its core, detailing a working relationship that demands more thought and introspection than is given in this tepid treatment.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

After hearing that their grandfather's cemetery has been vandalized and raided for body parts, a young woman, her wheelchair bound brother, and three friends travel to Texas to check on the plot and stay at the family house. Along the way they pick up a psychotic hitchhiker, encounter some weirdos at an abandon gas station, and fall into the clutches of Leatherface, a chainsaw wielding lunatic--all members of a cannibalistic family preparing for their latest barbecue. Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is a low budget and highly influential horror which is (thankfully) not nearly as gory as its reputation deems and induces audience queasiness through staging and suggestion. Although its a fairly short film in length, it takes its time to build to a phenomenal nighttime chase sequence through the brush, and is somewhat diminished when it devolves into the freak show at the conclusion. John Larroquette's extended opening narration also proves highly contributory. In and of itself, Hooper's movie is a terrifying experience and a crucial entry in its genre. Only in looking through the lens of the countless retreads, remakes, and ripoffs does one begin to question its veracity, which is of course through no fault of its own.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Bit by the wedding bug, lovebirds Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) whisk off into the night until their car unexpectedly breaks down and they are forced to seek assistance at a spooky old mansion in the middle of nowhere. Greeted by an eerie butler (Richard O'Brien) during a late night revelry, they are soon introduced to their transvestite host Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) who is about to unleash his greatest creation yet. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is a bizarre and kinky musical send up/love letter to monster movies directed by Jim Sharman from O'Brien's play which has (somewhat inexplicably) taken on the status of a cult classic phenomenon. Many of its songs are a lot of fun and Curry is pretty astounding as the ostentatious cross dressing mad scientist, but (and this is really a matter of taste) I'm going to have to chalk this fan favorite up as another film that I just don't get.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Nightmare Before Christmas

When Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweenland, stumbles onto Christmas Town, he finds himself becoming more and more disillusioned with his vapid existence and seeks to adopt the strange and foreign ways of this tinselly new world. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a feature length stop-motion animated picture which was developed from a short story written by Tim Burton in 1982. It is highly imaginative and visually stimulating, containing many of Burton's signature flourishes, and is mostly successful thanks to the Danny Elfman songs, who also provides the tremendous singing voice of Jack. Also, Ken Page is an absolute riot as the debauched dungeon master Ooogie Boogie.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Fifty years after surviving the extraterrestrial onslaught, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) finally awakens from her slumber only to be informed that the same colony, which has since become inhabited by humans, has now become unresponsive. Equipped with a team of highly trained soldiers, Ripley returns in an advisory position to see that in fact aliens have wiped out the entire population (excepting one little girl) and again finds herself in combat against the snarling, remorseless beasties. James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece is heralded in many corners as the finest achievement in the series, but I find it to be somewhat of a lame and uninspired followup. Cameron turns in a typically lousy screenplay, absent of fresh ideas and replete with cliches and plot devices (i.e. Newt, the little girl). Early on in the picture, you can sense him trying to emulate Scott's slow burn approach, but gradually losing patience, and ultimately resorting to special effects and action film pratfalls. Weaver is expectedly strong again and she is given strong support from Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and Paul Reiser (although Bill Paxton is downright insufferable). I have no clue how this has attained its stature or how people even have the gumption to rank it over Scott's original. For me, its a typical first sequel: able to skate by on the remaining offerings of the original, but barely bringing anything new to the table.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

His Girl Friday

Ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) has quit her job at the paper in preparation for her impending nuptials, but her incorrigible editor and ex-husband (Cary Grant) entices her to stay with a juicy news story, pulling out every other trick in the book along the way in an effort to win her back. "His Girl Friday" is a frenetically paced classic from Hollywood legend Howard Hawks who reworked Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's already once filmed play "The Front Page" into this manic masterpiece. Grant and Russell are on the top of their respective games and a sheer delight to watch in a picture that is endless fun which never stops to take a breath.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hell and Back Again

"Hell and Back Again" examines the rigors of modern warfare and the variant, but no less psychologically taxing endeavor of coming home. Filmmaker Danfung Dennis follows Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris during a tour of duty in Afghanistan and subsequently as he returns home to his wife in North Carolina following a serious hip injury obtained in combat. Dennis' documentary contains stunningly photographed battle footage and reminded me of another recent, harrowing Afghanistan set war doc entitled "Restrepo." When the setting is changed to the home front, and the film attempts to examine the returning soldier's psyche, it begins to come up a little short as posturing for the camera subverts its intentions and effectiveness.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Having always been fed up by routinary and a rampant lack of imagination in the movies, Werner Herzog has spent his directing career fashioning daring and fascinating films, which push the limits of viewer expectations.  In "Aguirre: The Wrath of God",  one of his early masterworks, Herzog brought his camera and crew to the unpredictable wilderness of the Amazon, and crafted a dreamlike film about Spanish Conquistadors on the road to El Dorado and a tale of madness run wild. When conditions become too arduous for General Pizarro's crew, he sends a scouting party of forty men to find El Dorado, or at least a resting place where they can seek nourishment. A lieutenant is chosen to lead the expedition, but is soon undermined and overthrown by the mad, power hungry second in command Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). Kinski is a powder keg  seemingly barely able to contain his madness, and ready to boil over at any minute. The film, with its haunting visuals and hypnotic score, is an excellent early work from Herzog, and a warm up of sorts to "Fitzcarraldo", another masterpiece featuring Kinski, again telling a story of hysteria set in the unforgiving terrains of South America.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mary and Max

A lonely 8 year old girl in Melbourne, Australia addresses a random letter to Max, an middle-aged, overweight, and highly dysfunctional New York Jew. Over the course of several decades, the two keep up their often odd correspondence and cultivate their friendship over many hard times. "Mary and Max" is a highly impressive claymation film from Adam Elliot which pushes the envelope with vulgarity and abnormality, providing somewhat of a disservice to itself, but ultimately triumphs due to the warmth invested in its characters and story. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

There's No Place Like Home

In late 2010, basketball founder James Naismith's original rules of the game were auctioned off by Sotheby's in New York City. Fearing this monumental document would end up in the wrong hands (most fearfully at Duke University), Kansas Jayhawks fanatic Josh Swade set out on a mission to raise enough funds to purchase the seminal record and return it to the place where Naismith coached for many years and instituted his basketball dynasty. "There's No Place Like Home" plays like a version of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where Indiana Jones is now played by a smarmy, irritating, and overzealous cheerleader whose mission bears no significance, or not nearly as much as he bestows in it. Swade makes this latest "30 for 30" entry almost unbearable, which it would have been if not for its more even keeled participants (which include Larry Brown and Roy Williams) and some interesting (albeit very limited) history. The film never backs up its argument in favor of the record setting bid Swade achieves  and comes off the same in the end as it does in the beginning: as an entirely unworthy charitable endeavor.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Kiss of the Spider Woman

In a South American prison, a flamboyant transvestite (William Hurt) prances around his filthy cell reenacting an admired Nazi propaganda film for his cellmate, an impassioned political prisoner (Raul Julia). As the guards work to weaken the radical's resolve, his bunk mate reveals an ulterior motive, as their friendship begins to grow. "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is a fantastical adaptation of Manuel Puig's bizarre story by Hector Babenco, whose trajectory is self-evident, but is notable for it sumptuous film stock and incredible performances from Hurt, who won the Academy Award for his deeply felt performance, and Julia who is no less impressive as the fervent internee. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Shot in the Dark

Staff members of a Parisian chateau continue to be murdered, one after the other with all signs pointing to a beautiful Italian maid as the culprit. However, Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) suspects a conspiracy, much to the annoyance of his superior (Herbert Lom), and follows his senses down a bumbling and calamitous path. "A Shot in the Dark", the followup to "The Pink Panther", placed Sellers front and center and is routinely heralded as the foremost picture in the series. While I find it as slight and silly as the other entries, there are many hilarious gags (including Lom's psychotic episodes and a recurring one involving Seller's Judo tutee), and of course Sellers' committed and always spot-on performance.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


With the 1988 Seoul Summer Games approaching, and Olympic drug testing in its infancy, track star Carl Lewis was one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, though Canadian Ben Johnson had recently emerged as a reckonable rival. When Johnson upset Lewis in the 100m dash, setting the titular record and earning the gold medal. His success was to be short lived however, as he was accused of doping charges only three days later and stripped of his accolades. Over time, 6 of the 8 participants in that race would face sanctions for doping charges. Daniel Gordon's "9.79*" is an absorbing, in-depth profile, which includes the athletes involved in the infamous race, most of whom contribute to the film and offer either their regrets, denials, or explanations, and an early history of the Olympic testing, all of which is told in a clear and balanced fashion.

Monday, October 15, 2012

End of Watch

Two young police officers (Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena), brothers-in-arms prepared to die for each other in the blink of an eye, patrol the most dangerous neighborhood of South Central L.A. and stumble onto a series of narcotics players, continually drawing the ire of a Mexican drug cartel. "End of Watch" is a harsh, often brutal film from writer/director David Ayers, who knows the terrain well and has crafted similar, exceptional entries ("Training Day", "Harsh Times"), and here elevates the material by investing in the humanizing of his lead actors. I have read criticisms of the "gimmicky", hand-held approach to the film (Gyllenhaal's character films much of it as a project for his pre-law class), and although I was apprehensive going into the film, I found it to be one of the rare instances where it actually enhanced the story, allowing further insight into these people's lives. Both lead actors are excellent. It is nice to see Michael Pena deliver such a deep performance in a worthy role, and they are backed up strongly by Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who play the love interests, and David Harbour, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera, and Cody Horn who play other members of the department.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reflections in a Golden Eye

A rigid, sexually repressed officer (Marlon Brando) stationed pines after a peculiar enlistee (Robert Forster), while his boozy wife (Elizabeth Taylor) takes up with a fellow functionary (Brian Keith) whose wife (Julie Harris) has just undergone a bizarre bout of psychosis. John Huston's "Reflections in a Golden Eye" is a strange, disturbing, and compulsively engaging adaptation of Carson McCullers' 1944 novel, which is filmed in an unusual color tint with great gusto by the legendary master. Brando delivers a keen and unexpected performance as the homosexual army man, which must have been a shock for 1967 audiences, and Taylor is his match playing his bratty, domineering wife. I also am really fond of Keith's work here, trying to keep a level head and caught in between devotion to his wife, his superior officer, and his lover. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Inspired by the news story of local serial killer and the egging on of his live wire best friend (Sam Rockwell), who makes ends meet by kidnapping pooches at the local park and collecting the reward money, an alcoholic, hack screenwriter (Colin Farrell) begins his latest project: an existential rumination on a band of seven disparate and deranged lunatics whose bizarre happens more than closely mirror the even odder occurrences of the film. Writer/director Martin McDonagh follows up his freshman triumph "In Bruges" with this violent, self-aware, quirky, though not quite as fun effort which reunites him with Farrell, who is more subdued though still excellent in his role. Rockwell steals the picture as expected (I don't know how this guy is considered top Hollywood brass) and has the movies funniest scene. an extended monologue where he acts out what his ideal finish to Farrell's movie would be. Woody Harrelson and especially Christopher Walken fill in supporting roles nicely with funny comic turns. "Seven Psychopaths" moves in fits and starts, and is clunky in parts, but it strives to be something different, and is mostly entertaining on its own terms.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Following the death of Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), his top general and confidant (Russell Crowe) is betrayed by the late emperor's envious son (Joaquin Phoenix). Having escaped execution and witnessed the massacre of his family, the once proud general trains as a gladiator and plots his revenge for his glorious and bloody return to Rome. Ridley Scott's Best Picture winner is a rousing and violent epic, which features refined performances from an impassioned Crowe (also an Oscar winner here) and brooding Phoenix, both of whom are excellent. The film is wonderfully directed by Scott, and features some great fight sequences, but is seriously marred by its cheap, shoddy transitional scenery and some quite odious and obvious CGI.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Woman in Black

A young, grieving barrister, having recently lost his wife, is sent from London to a country manor which has been the site of several recent suicides, in the hopes of completing the paperwork for its sale. There, he discovers a paranormal being, hellbent on revenge, who may place his own son in jeopardy. "The Woman in Black" is an adequate if routine horror film whose dots can be connected fairly easily early on, and which is notable for its great photography in addition to the ample scares it provides. It also features a nice turn from Daniel Radcliffe in his first post Harry Potter role.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Inflamed by the United States decision to offer safe haven to their despised Shah, tensions mount in Iran, culminating in the storming of the American embassy in Tehran in September, 1979. During the melee in which 52 Americans were captured and held hostage for over a year, a group of six were able to escape and find refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador. As their situation grows ever more tenuous by the day, a CIA extraction specialist (Ben Affleck) begins concocting a hair-brained scheme to safely smuggle out his charges. "Argo" is the latest film to redefine Ben Affleck's career it is a sound, intricately detailed thriller which he handles tremendously as both director and star. In addition to his nuanced turn as CIA agent Tony Mendez, he is given great support by Bryan Cranston, finally in a role that suits him as a hardened fellow operative, as well as John Goodman and Alan Arkin who provided comic relief as Hollywood B-movie makers who figure into Affleck's cover scheme. The extended final sequence is anticlimactic up until a point, and doesn't follow through on the promise of the extraordinary opening embassy storming sequence (which deftly blends with stock footage). "Argo" has been generating tremendous buzz, and although I found that it flew but didn't quite soar, it is another leap in the right direction for Affleck.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Hell on Wheels

Season 2
Following his mistaken retribution and exile from the camp, Bohannon takes up with a band rebel outlaws and begins targeting Durant's payroll loads. Lilly and Elam both show tenacity in their own respective fields, and a deadly army of Sioux warriors gradually begins to form, led by the chaotic being known as the white spirit. "Hell on Wheels" hits its stride in its sophomore season where, compounded with its always astounding visuals, it beings to sink its teeth into the character development of three of its prominent stars (Mount, Common, McElligott). Some storylines still prove to be unworthy (the Irish brothers & the Pentecostal preacher lady come to mind), while other happenings seem unneeded or only existing for the sake of modern television convention (Lily's ultimate fate), but all in all, series founding brothers Joe and Tony Grayton continue to improve upon their flawed, but promising first season

Season 1
Following the close of the war between the states an ex-Confederate soldier (Anson Mount) seeks to eradicate the Union officers who murdered his wife and son in his absence. His quest of vengeance leads to the Nebraskan plains where one of the targeted is employed building the First Transcontinental Railroad, which will link the Union Pacific in the east to the Central Pacific in the West, uniting the country in a monumental and incredibly arduous task. Here the stranger becomes rooted, and encounters a bull-headed ex-slave (Common), an equally bull-headed and recently widowed beauty (Dominique McElligott), a ruthless Nordic security boss (Christopher Heyerdahl), a crazed preacher (Tom Noonan), his Indian charge (Eddie Spears), and the tyrannical railroad magnate Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney) who oversees all. "Hell on Wheels" is a fairly entertaining, competently photographed series from brothers Joe and Tony Grayton which will always be overshadowed the far superior and less limited series "Deadwood.", and does itself a disservice the more it beckons the memory of that show (a particular moment where Meaney allows the settlement's whores to attend a festivity is particularly cringe inducing - there's an even worse one in the new season regarding body disposal). However, I was still drawn in somewhat by the show and moved by some, if not all of its story lines. Mount has a certain quality about him and feels of the era, as does Common whose earnestness shines through. Meaney's over-the-top snarling also contains a particular appeal. If I were at the helm of this show, I might have steered it in a different direction than that of the gritty and violent world of David Milch's landmark series, but for what it is "Hell on Wheels" does contain an undeniable entertainment value. 
** 1/2

Sunday, October 7, 2012

America, America

A Greek family living in Anatolia near the turn of the 20th century, begin to feel the strain of increased Turkish oppression and send their son (Stathis Giallelis) to Constantinople to start a new life. After losing his entrusting fortune to a con artist and enduring even more hardships, the indomitable young man sets his sights on the promise of America. "America, America" is legendary director Elia Kazan's most personal work, drawing on his uncle's own emigration experiences. Kazan shot the film with his sure hand, in crisp and beautiful black and white, and fills his movie with loving and often harshly realistic details. Giallelis is very endearing in the lead role and keeps a rooting interest through the considerable duration of the film. I thought it started to drag during the Constantinople scenes, but picked again for an extraordinary closing sequence.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

In the Land of Blood and Honey

A Muslim woman (Zana Marjanovic) and a Serbian soldier (Goran Kostic) have an affair and find themselves reunited when he saves her from group rape and holds her in the tenuous capacity as his live-in mistress, during the Bosnian War that raged across the Balkans in the early 1990s. "In the Land of Blood and Honey" is the directorial debut from Angelina Jolie, who shows a sure hand and a keen eye for her craft, but is done a disservice by the central outlandish and torrid relationship of her story, which does a great disservice to the harrowing material. The film is fairly engrossing, however, and Marjanovic is particularly effective and heartbreaking.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Champ

A washed up, alcoholic fighter (Wallace Beery) starts his comeback bid south of the border in Tijuana with his doting son (Jackie Cooper) in tow. When the boy's mother (Irene) convinces him that the boy would be better off in her care, the two struggle with their separation as the pugilist gears towards his final bout in the ring. "The Champ" is an overly sentimental tale whose sappiness is overcome by the earnestness and likability of its stars. Beery, in his Oscar winning role, shows what made him such an endearing star in the early talkie period and makes one wonder why he has become so forgotten over the years. I also found Jackie Cooper to be appealing, and a latter reteaming of the two in "Treasure Island" is also fun. Although too many soapy moments threaten to dismantle this movie, the charm and charisma of its stars make it a winner.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Following the glory days of professional sports, a staggering number of athletes find themselves insolvent, with figures as high as 60% of NBA players filing for bankruptcy after five years of retirement and 78% for NFLers following just three years. Since the salary booms of the last twenty years, athletes find themselves unable and in many cases unwilling to deal with their financial responsibilities and, after what is more often than not a short lived career, find themselves the targets of scams, leeches, and their own bad decisions. Billy Corben's "Broke", the first entry in the lastest run of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, features candid interviews with several athletes who have found financial strife since their playing days (including Bernie Kosar (above), Andre Rison, Jamal Mashburn), and very little else in terms of documentary film. "Broke" is redundant, devoid of style, and contains not even the slightest modicum of insight. Unless you haven't figured out that "mo' money, mo' problems" and "makin' it rain is like throwin' cash away", or you would care to know what an athlete's model portfolio should look like, or if the pathetic equivocalness of grown ignorant men who have squandered everything is something that interests you, then you can save yourself the trouble and avoid "Broke."

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Last Seduction

A sinister businesswoman (Linda Fiorentino) manipulates her bumbling doctor husband (Bill Pullman) into transacting a six figure pharmaceutical black market deal and then, while he showers after returning with the dough, makes off like a thief in the night. Taking it on the lam in upstate New York before she can begin her life anew in the big city, she quickly finds another pliable dolt (Peter Berg) with whom to hatch her next insidious scheme. "The Last Seduction" is a dark, ingeniously plotted, and stylish work from scripter Steve Barancik and director John Dahl, who seems to have more than a passing admiration for film noir, and whose movie bears more than a few similarities to noir classics old and new, such as "Double Indemnity" and "Body Heat". Among the icy femme fatales that dominate these and other films of the style, perhaps Fiorentino is the most malevolent, perhaps even more so than any villain in film history, with her total disdain for any semblance of morality surely to shock any viewer.