A high society attorney (Daniel Day-Lewis) is set to marry a woman of similar breeding (Winona Ryder) when he falls hard for her cousin (Michelle Pfeiffer), a blighted ex-aristocrat and current pariah in their gossipy social circle. Martin Scorsese takes a detour from his usual time and place settings to adapt Edith Wharton's damning critique of the mid-19th century Manhattan elite. The film is exquisitely shot, with the director's trademarked restless camera, and incredibly acted by the leads. The film also features fine narration from Joanne Woodward and an ending that is memorably flooring.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Friday, November 29, 2013
Three bumbling country fed nincompoops led by the confounded rapscallion Ulysses Everett McGill escape from a Mississippi chain gang and brave hell and high water to return home to their self-appointed leaders' sweetheart. Sometimes movies are best left in the time and place you first met them and I was disappointed when I found some of the fun taken out of O Brother, Where Art Thou? my last time through. During this go round the laughs seemed scant and George Clooney struggled with his southern accent while the Coen Brothers were unable to find direction for their desultory riff on The Odyssey. It is possible, since I am in the minority of those who don't find Raising Arizona to be comic gold exactly that I just don't care for their flat out screwball stuff. O Brother still has its moments and the bluegrassy soundtrack is still worthy of all its accolades.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Revisiting Steven Spielberg's venerated masterpiece once more, I hearkened back to the days when the networks actually showed movies during primetime on Thanksgiving (this year the lineup consists of a football game, a Charlie Brown special, and an episode of Glee). As a youngster, I was mesmerized by the spectacular special effects and was drawn into an intelligent story that didn't condescend to my age group. Watching E.T. again, it is remarkable how much empathy is still generated by the Henry Thomas performance and that of an automated puppet, and how much of that same sense of wonder and even some of the more painful, fearful feelings (when E.T. is sick) are retained.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
While the self-anointed Zodiac killer terrorizes residents in the Bay Area through random acts of manslaughter and cryptic messages sent for publication in the local newspapers, only a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle (Jake Gyllenhaal), with occasional assistance from an alcoholic reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) and a hotshot detective (Mark Ruffalo), sees the unresolved case to its bitter end, through obsession and personal endangerment. Adapted from a book by Robert Graysmith, the featured illustrator, Zodiac is one of the most detailed films in memory, with its continual barrage of dates and case facts made all the more impressive by director David Fincher's heightened visual style and its ability to maintain a highly intense narrative thrust, these two elements coming to a head in the extraordinarily conceived basement sequence. Gyllenhaal serves as the film's center, Ruffalo is a standout playing the dogged, semi-famous detective David Toschi, and Downey Jr. finds a role suited to his personality (and not the other way around) adding a welcomed sense of humor.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Known as a king of the Bs, Roger Corman has produced over 400 pictures with titles ranging from Dinocroc vs. Supergator to Bloodfist 2050. Carrying himself in an anachronistic, professorial manner Corman has also directed a series of heralded Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, brought the films of Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, and Kurasawa to the attention of American audiences as a distributor, fought Hollywood excess and championed many charitable causes, and cultivated the careers of such talents as Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Dennis Hopper and many others. Corman's World is an loving look at the career of the virtuoso producer, with many of his admirers and former apprentices on hand to sing his praises.
Monday, November 25, 2013
The life of a battered, aging, half crippled, pill addled, alcoholic pro wide receiver (Nick Nolte) as the trials he faces on the field pale in comparisons to those off of it while playing for a decadent Dallas Cowboys resembling organization. From a Peter Gent novel, which he helped to adapt for the screen, Ted Kotcheff's North Dallas Forty is a no holds barred look at the world of professional football, a film defined by its stark realism that ruffled some feathers in its time, and one which still resonates in today's world of seemingly nonstop athletic hooliganism. Nolte is spectacular in the lead and is given great support from Charles Durning as his hard nosed coach. The climactic game is a knockout as is the concluding gut-wrenching sequence.
*** 1/2 out of ****
*** 1/2 out of ****
Sunday, November 24, 2013
In a monastery situated in the middle of a lake deep in a vacant wilderness, a monk raises a young boy to take up his trade, and we are shown the evolution of their relationship through five of life's seasons. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is a contemplative, beautifully crafted film with excellent performances from Yeoung-Su Oh as the teacher and the five actors (one being the film's writer/director Ki-duk Kim) who play the pupil.
Friday, November 22, 2013
Watching along with a mortified country as the occurrences of November 22, 1963 unfold, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) develops a curiosity, which will soon turn to obsession, on the questions (or lack thereof) surrounding the Kennedy assassination, a matter which will lead him to be the only person to prosecute the execution, a dangerous expedition which will cost him his reputation, nearly his family, and bring the American public no closer to the truth. Fifty years to the date of the despairing loss of John F. Kennedy, many still harbor doubts about the events surrounding his murder. While director Oliver Stone and his subject, whose book is a basis for the film (the other is a work by Jim Marrs), have become written off in more than a few quarters as paranoid looneys, JFK remains a fascinating albeit exhausting investigatory film, enhanced illimitably by the astonishing, Oscar winning editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. This is most evident during Garisson's lengthy closing remarks, which arrive over three hours into the picture and rehash many belabored points, but still remain exhilarating thanks largely to their labor. The film is too much at times, some of the acting is overwrought as seemingly every Hollywood star big and tall, large and small appears, but Stone must be commended for its sweeping scope, the thought provoking, difficult questions it asks, and (which the director is not too modest to point out) the congressional information act it inspired.
A skirt chasing, hate spewing, rodeo hustler (a skeletal Matthew McConnaughey) receives a baffling AIDS diagnosis, is told he has thirty days to live, and becomes a pariah amongst his fellow Texas good ol' boys. Unable to procure the miracle drug AZT, which is being distributed in hospitals through blind testing, and determined not to wither away quietly, he seeks alternate medicine in Mexico. Finding this FDA unapproved treatment suitable, he illegally transports the remedy to sell out of his hometown hotel under the titular associative guise. The Dallas Buyers Club starts as a gritty and excitingly edited work before resorting to more conventional storytelling modalities. It is almost as if the filmmakers knew they had this tour-de-force star performance (and also a really nice turn from Jared Leto playing a transvestite) and rushed the movie out, leaving transitory scenes on the cutting room floor as McConnaughey's character transforms from a remorseless homophobe almost instantly to a redneck Oskar Schindler travelling to the ends of the earth (literally) and even hocking his car to save his infected club members.
*** out of ****
*** out of ****
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Overlooking a portion of the Blacks Hills of South Dakota, the sacred land of the Sioux, lies the sixty foot granite visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. PBS' American Experience documentary on Mount Rushmore is a well presented and surprisingly humorous telling of sculptor (and apparent character) Gutzon Borglum's wild efforts to procure funding for the monument and his fourteen year, often dangerous completion of the task.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Adapted for the screen twice from John D. MacDonald's novel The Executioners, Cape Fear tells the story of a convicted rapist being released after a lengthy prison term who makes it his life's mission to track down the attorney who sent him up the river (in the earlier version in was a witness who testified against him, the latter his own counsel who withheld evidence) and make his life a living hell. J. Lee Thompson directed the 1962 film which is surprisingly gritty for its time and most notable for Robert Mitchum's terrifyingly believable yet naturalistic performance (it made me wonder how close this role was to his actual persona) as the vile Max Cady. Gregory Peck is strong in the opposing role, but the character is always in the right and pretty uninteresting as a result, as are the female characters who are played by absolutely horrendous actresses. Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake serves as an improvement in almost every way: the heightened direction, photography, a screenplay involving new dynamics concerning the family, and fine performances by Nick Nolte (who takes over the Peck role), Jessica Lange, and Juliette Lewis. However, Robert De Niro as Cady is so over the top and the film ultimately turns relentessly unpleasant.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
On the harsh and windy British Moorlands, a magnanimous estate keeper takes in a disheveled orphan who, as a stable boy, becomes the target of his son's sadism and the apple of his daughter's eye who, as time goes by, is compelled to bury these intensely intimate feelings. Wikipedia shows there have been no less than fifteen adaptations of Emily Bronte's novel (which I have yet to read), the most famous of which is William Wyler's 1939 version featuring Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven, and most recently Andrea Arnold attempted to give the classic a shot in the arm with a gritty update. Watching Wyler's revered film again, I found it to be stodgy with Oberon an overwrought Cathy, Olivier only seeming comfortable when playing the civilized Heathcliffe, and Gregg Toland's Oscar winning cinematography being a highlight. Arnold's version also contains beautiful photography but her film is plodding, incohesive, and never successfully draws the viewer into the powerful story.
Monday, November 18, 2013
So I sat down to watch the initial Star Wars movies again and I don't think a synopsis of George Lucas' epic space saga is really necessary, so hear are my thoughts as I view the films through world-weary orbs and not those of a wide eyed preadolescent to whom they meant so much a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away: The first two films, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, retain most of their magic, while Return of the Jedi is essentially just a corned out rehash of the second installment. As for the actors, Alec Guinness' gravitas brings much to the proceedings, Mark Hamill's earnestness shines through, Carrie Fisher is irritating (how was she the great sex symbol of the day?), Harrison Ford is lifeless, and it is amazing how sympathetic and how much of the trilogy rests on the shoulders of the two droids. Revisiting episodes four, five, and six I had no desire to continue on with the lackluster prequels, have zero interest in the upcoming continuations, and while these original films did stir genuine feelings of nostalgia, I had to ask myself, "what am I doing, thirty years old, watching Star Wars on my couch?"
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Probably the two biggest cinematic assemblies of Leo Tolstoy's mountainous novel, which detailed the interweaving lives of several Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars, occurred first out of Hollywood in 1956 and then in a Russian adaptation of a no less mammoth scope in 1966. The American version, with marquee names like King Vidor in the helm, Jack Cardiff manning the cameras, and Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn in front of it, has gone largely forgotten despite some excellent photography, a fine performance from Fonda, and a generally well done treatment.
Sergey Bondarchuk's version, which has the greater historical reputation but has been about as equally consigned these days, set the record at the time for production costs, extras used, and a slew of other overages in a shoot that spanned several years. Despite its impressive scope, I found it to be murky, muddled, and uninvolving, with the saving grace coming in the form of performers Lyudmila Saveleva and Bondarchuk himself, who fill the same roles played by Hepburn and Fonda. One of the main issues, especially with the 1966 version (which did go on to win the Foreign Film Oscar and international acclaim) is that despite the fact of the sheer length of the novel, much of it is rhetoric or essay, all of which is not exactly fit for the screen and certainly not a two and a half hour movie or a seven hour miniseries.
Saturday, November 16, 2013
The rise and fall of Henry Hill, who spent his childhood in Little Italy idolizing the local two-bit hoods, rose in their rackets, and lived the live (including having participated in the record setting Lufthansa heist) before resorting to drugs and turning government witness, the ultimate betrayal to his friends and associates. After repeated viewings and a more than passing familiarity with the movie, Goodfellas is still a completely engaging and perhaps the most watchable of all films as it takes a dead on eye level, blinders off, deglamourized riff on the mob. After once more taking the journey into this violent, yet often humorous and seductive territory through the lens of Scorsese's never resting camera, who worked with Nicolas Pilleggi in adapting the journalist's seemingly insider book Wiseguy, it hit me just how good some of the lesser heralded performances are in the movie (Pesci still steals the film), specifically the work of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco, also doubling as narrators as they provide an outsider's and often bemused view of the lifestyle. The soundtrack also bears mentioning as a great collage with artists varying between, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, The Ronettes, The Rolling Stones, and Muddy Waters.
Friday, November 15, 2013
John D. Rockefeller, the son of a traveling con artist and a devout mother, was a callous businessman with great disdain for his competition and the public. He would go on to amass one of the greatest fortunes the world has seen, give much of it back, and create a legacy shrouded in contradiction and mystery. The Rockefellers is a fascinating profile, mostly focusing the life of the family's patriarch, and told by many of his progeny. The film is admirable for not taking the hard line and instead offers a sweeping and often sympathetic view of the oil magnate.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
A complacent, melancholic literature student (Adele Exarchopoulos) finishing up her last year of high school meets a slightly older, and more assured aspiring artist (Lea Seydoux), and sparks fly as the two embark on a fleetingly passionate love affair. Blue is the Warmest Color, the Palme D'or winner of this year, arrives now in the U.S. with the imposed subheading The Three Hour Sexually Graphic Lesbian Movie, a minimization which is only partially fair. Abdellatif Kechiche's film is really just a well observed, coming of age character study that probably could have been told in about half the time. And yes it has some pretty outrageous sex scenes. The film is intimately shot, mostly in closeup, and its two female leads give daring, absolutely amazing performances.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Following a collision on his sailboat with a shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a stranded elderly sailor (Robert Redford) must contend with violent weather and use his resourcefulness to make his way back to land. For his second feature following Margin Call, All is Lost is an admirable and almost experimental project for writer/director J.C. Chandor and also an excellent and seemingly arduous vehicle for Redford, who is the only credited cast member and still commanding as ever at the age of 77. I think I liked the basic idea behind the film better than the execution as certain stretches, especially in the first half, tended to drag and the audience is given very little about the main character, perhaps in an attempt to avoid hackneyed, survivor movie cliches. Chandor utilizes some visual poetry quite well in the concluding passages and again Redford delivers a moving, authoritative performance.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
New York Stories is a compendium of three short films from directors whose oeuvre has been largely defined by the megalopolis. Leading off is Martin Scorsese with Life Lessons which details an artist's attempts to lure his ex-girlfriend/muse to stay with him in his studio apartment, allotting him both the opportunity to finish his gallery painting and torment her psychologically. It is a well realized film, written by Richard Price and based on a Dostoevsky short story, and features two nice performances from Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette. Up next is Francis Ford Coppola serving up pointless tripe with Life without Zoe which he concocted with his daughter Sofia. It tells a cloying Eloise like story about a young girl living on her own in a ritzy Manhattan hotel. Woody Allen wraps things up with Oedipus Wrecks, a hilarious tale (and my personal favorite of the lot) of an attorney being literally haunted by his overbearing mother following a mishap at a magic show.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Two career Navy officers (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) receive orders to escort a young boatman (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Virginia to the brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to serve an eight year sentence. His crime: stealing forty dollars from the chapel's poor box. With layovers in New York City and Boston, the two veterans seize the opportunity to show the kid a good time while reflecting on the inhibitions of their own freedoms. Hal Ashby's The Last Detail is a funny and thought provoking road comedy thanks both to an insightful and foulmouthed screenplay by Robert Towne (though it doesn't come off as naturalistic as it intends) and three remarkable performances depicting characters with whom you either emulate or empathize.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
A rage and incertitude plague a very mortal Jesus (Willem Dafoe, ideally cast) as he is challenged by a browbeating Judas (Harvey Keitel) and wrestles with the dilemma of His father's calling, especially during His final hours on the cross, when He is tempted with visions of a life of domestic bliss with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). Adapted from the inflammatory Nikos Kazantzakis novel by the director's oft-collaborator Paul Schrader, The Last Temptation of Christ was a longtime passion project for Martin Scorsese and one met with no less of a swell of controversy. Seen now, twenty five years after its release, it is difficult to understand these contentions in a film made with the utmost respect and reverence which asks difficult questions and presents a savior who resists when confronted with the ultimate temptation and also offers a highly accessible portrait of Jesus' human side.
Saturday, November 9, 2013
In a society kept under constant surveillance and endless war, an office drone (John Hurt) busied with editing the country's history ("he who controls the past controls the future...") sees a flicker of hope for the future during a liaison with a radical student (Suzanna Hamilton) and finds his soul and spirit thoroughly crushed after foolishly placing his trust in the hands of a beguiling party member (Richard Burton). 1984 is an excellent and unexpected adaptation of the George Orwell classic that vividly captures the hopeless desolation and replicates the muted appearance of the book. With his worn features and raspy voice, Hurt is an ideal Winston Smith and Burton delivers an eerie and commanding performance in what proved to be his last screen role.
Friday, November 8, 2013
A office drone (Griffin Dunne) heads to lower Manhattan to meet up with a woman (Rosanna Arquette) he became acquainted with earlier that evening, thus beginning a mericless, Kafkaesque trial of the will where he will be dogged by everyone and everything, from neighborhood watch people to subway workers and cab drivers to various art crowd weirdos and local thiefs. After Hours is a brilliantly constructed and immensely entertaining black comedy from Martin Scorsese, an unlikely candidate to make this kind of picture who delivers with his usual aplomb. It also provides a fine lead vehicle for Griffin Dunne, whose part is a lot trickier than may appear at first glance. While finding myself laughing aloud consistently while revisiting this little gem, I lamented the current state of comedies, where comedic moviemakers take the easy road out with witless, gross-out efforts, and once again marveled at the abilities of one of our finest filmmakers, succeeding admirably in a genre where most directors today fail.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
The Last Tycoon tells the fractured story of Hollywood producer Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro), modeled after MGM's "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg, as he oversees production at a major studio, battles union heads and corrupt executives, and romances a young woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to his deceased actress wife. Whether it was taking a stab at screenwriting, someone else's telling of his own stories, or his boozy, lackluster final years on the West Coast, F. Scott Fitzgerald never really faired well in Hollywood and this wooden treatment of his final, unfinished novel The Love of the Last Tycoon is no exception. The film was also legendary director Elia Kazan's final gig behind the camera, and the screenplay was written by no less than Harold Pinter but, unless I'm mistaken, they draw exclusively from the finished parts of Fitzgerald's novel who frankly didn't leave much to work with. The film is probably worthwhile for De Niro completists, I enjoyed his performance and also that of Jack Nicholson and old pros like Robert Mitchum and Tony Curtis.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Hal Needham was a famed Hollywood stuntman and racing enthusiast who passed away near the end of last month and was a beloved figure by all accounts. Referencing his extensive background, he wrote a screenplay which he went on to direct that became one of the smash (emphasis on the word smash) hits of the 1970s. Smokey and the Bandit is essentially a ninety minute car chase telling how the plucky Bandit (Burt Reynolds), on a dare, runs blocker in his souped up Trans Am for his buddy (Jerry Reed) as they transport 400 cases of Coors from Texas to Georgia ("that's considered bootleggin' in these parts") with a calvacade of cops in pursuit, led by the irascible Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), and with a firecracker runaway bride in tow (Sally Field). The film is fun for awhile, with amazing stunt and chase sequences not to mention some pretty stunning scenic photography, but wears thin thanks to a country fried, uninspired script, a disappointing performance from Gleason, and a wooden Reynolds who has the charisma of a log. Field is impossibly cute, adding life to the picture, and the plot referencing songs, which are provided on the soundtrack by Reed, are unintentionally hilarious.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
When Martin Scorsese has forayed into documentary filmmaking, it is usually to capture either music (The Last Waltz, No Direction Home, The Blues) or film (A Personal Journey..., A Letter to Elia) topics. Early in his career however he aimed his camera at very personal subjects, interviewing first his parents and then a close friend in two separate hour long profiles. In Italianamerican, following his breakthrough success of Mean Streets, Scorsese interviews his parents Charles and Catherine who, with warm detail, tell of their experiences as second generation immigrants by way of story spinning and pictures, stopping occasionally to offer family recipes and berate their son. Made several years later, during a particular low point for the director, American Boy features Steve Prince, a man of many hats (one of which was a memorable bit as an actor in Taxi Driver), who tells wild stories of his often drug addled life on the road, some of which have found their way into films by modern directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Richard Linklater. Whether it's a big budget studio picture or two friends exchanging stories in an apartment, it has always boiled down to simple storytelling and with these two films we simply have one great storyteller introducing a few others.
Monday, November 4, 2013
A profile of the professional life of hacker Julian Assange, a man of a thousand descriptors ranging from brilliant to arrogant to slithery, beginning with his involvement as a teen with a group that targeted a NASA space launch in 1989 to his founding of WikiLeaks in 2006, an anonymous whistleblowing website that propelled him to rockstar status and was responsible for the single largest security rupture in United States history. We Steal Secrets is another outstanding documentary from Alex Gibney mainly because, although it is decidedly clear where his opinion lies on the subject, he still presents a fair minded, all encompassing portrait of his controversial, many angled subject.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
A divorced masseuse (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) meets a congenial television archivist (James Gandolfini) and a snobbish poet (Catherine Keener) at a party. As she embarks on a serious relationship with the former and a friendly client arrangement with the ladder, she finds herself drawn to the flame and making inappropriate omissions when she discovers these two new associates were once married. Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said is a charming and funny romantic comedy, featuring two lovable lead performances, and functions as yet one more bittersweet sendoff for Gandolfini, who is delightful to watch speak the director's female-centric dialogue. The movie goes on just a little too long and its resolution is a little too neat but Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini are so endearing that it hardly makes these quibbles relevant.
Friday, November 1, 2013
In 1841 a violinist and free man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from Saratoga, New York, with a wife and two young children at home, was lured to our nation's capital under the guise of good paying work where he was kidnapped, sold up the river, and endured the titular hell on a New Orleans plantation until his deliverance. Based on a purportedly true memoir by Solomon Northrup, which was released just after Uncle Tom's Cabin and helped to inflame the slavery debate in the years leading up to the Civil War, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching account of America's original sin by director Steve McQueen. I walked out of the theater with ambivalent feelings about the film, one being roundly heralded as "the definitive movie on the institution of slavery." First, following Shame we again have an unflagging excoriation of American society by a troupe of Brits. Secondly, even though 12 Years is impeccably crafted and beautifully acted by Ejiofor (it is so nice to see this long time supporter get a leading role he deserves) I'm not sure what it's function is: The movie is too brutal and visceral to be an entertainment. It is not educational, these lessons are familiar to anyone with some semblance of education. Lastly, it doesn't even work as some kind of cathartic experience. I found myself being kept at a distance from the material, as I anticipated the next act of violent cruelty, and couldn't even share in the emotional rewards it should have offered. There are also some lesser quibbles too, such as the arcane dialogue which the cast occasionally struggles with and a celebrity supporting cast which, even when the performances are good (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch), also serves to take you out of the movie. In the end I think we have to ask ourselves if this horrific reminder to times not so long ago actually tells us anything new about our past or present or is this really just a liberal guilt trip?
A morally compromised attorney's (Michael Fassbender) involvement in a major international drug deal places him on a one way course towards misery and despair. With The Counselor, director Ridley Scott and company seem to be stepping aside for Cormac McCarthy, the esteemed novelist who makes his screenwriting debut. McCarthy, who appears to be mining remains from No Country for Old Men territory in a screenplay that needed to undergo several more rewrites, offers a script which probably read better on the page, thus presenting a serious problem considering everything in the film is secondary to the writing. To make matters worse, the film has ambitions of making a statement on an American culture that benefits from the woes of a savage drug culture, yet exists almost solely for the payoff of its violent scenes! The dream cast, which also includes Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz, struggles and sounds mannered delivering the awkward dialogue, and its often difficult to determine what the actors are supposed to be doing or who exactly their characters are. Only Javier Bardem adds a little flavor, whose departure takes whatever wind was left in the sales of this inert, highfalutin garble.