Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Magnificent Ambersons

In a wealthy Indianapolis community, in an age of progress circa 1900, sits the once prestigious and now fading Amberson mansion. One of its residents, the beautiful Isabel (Dolores Costello), once welcomed the affections of Eugene (Joseph Cotton) but ended the engagement following a public humiliation and went on to marry a lifeless bore and gave her her only child, the pompous, irascible George (Tim Holt). When Eugene returns many years later, widowed and as a successful automaker, George takes a liking to his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), but becomes enraged when he learns of Eugene's and his mother's past kinship. Orson Welles' chose to adapt Booth Tarkington's novel (which Welles suspected was modeled after himself and other members of his family) for his sophomore directorial outing and, even in spite of the infamous studio butchering, is still a worthy follow-up to "Citizen Kane." The photography, editing, and storytelling modes are unique and innovative and the performances are excellent, especially Cotton as the bemused and noble suitor, Costello as the sweet and best heiress, Holt as a spoiled no-account, and Agnes Moorehead as his jealous, spinster aunt.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Papillon

Based on an incredible story whose veracity has been called into question, "Papillon" tells the story of Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen), a French thug convicted of murdering a pimp and sent to Devil's Island. There he befriends a shifty, resourceful inmate (Dustin Hoffman) and begins his dire efforts to become the first escapee of the notorious penal colony. Franklin J. Schaffner's film, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, is overlong, but very good in parts, and demonstrates the evident star power of McQueen. Hoffman makes some irritating acting choices as his screen partner.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

At the premiere of his latest nature documentary, sea explorer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) vows to take revenge on the shark that took his best friend's life. In addition to members of his regular crew, he is joined by his back/ex-wife (Angelica Huston), a journalist (Cate Blanchett) whom he falls for, and a young man claiming to be his son (Owen Wilson), who take part in a tumultuous expedition. Written with Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is a formless, self-indulgent, overly artsy, and occasionally amusing film. Murray is too impassive and among the rest of a largely disappointing star cast, Huston, Michael Gambon, and Bud Court come off best. Having recently rewatched all of Anderson's film, "Life Aquatic" is, to my mind, the only project unworthy of his talents and the film that probably gives him a bad reputation with more than a small segment of moviegoers.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Imitation of Life

While at the beach with her daughter, an aspiring actress (Lana Turner) meets another single mother (Juanita Moore), an African-American raising a fair skinned daughter, and is convinced to take her on as a maid. As her career begins to take off, she finds herself spending less time with her daughter (played as a teen by Sandra Dee), who is being raised by the maid who is having her own difficulties with her own ashamed, ungrateful child (Susan Kohner). Douglas Sirk's "Imitation of Life" is a surprisingly pointed and exceedingly well done melodrama shot in effulgent Technicolor and featuring some fine performances, especially from Moore as the beset, angelic maid.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

An aged British officer (Roger Livesey) and member of the Home Guard as World War II breaks out in Europe, is the victim of an insensitive prank by a junior officer. After berating the young lad, he flashes back to his distinguished military career spanning both the Boer War and the First Great War, as well as his personal involvements with a German soldier and friend (Anton Walbrook) and his three great loves (all played by Deborah Kerr). Filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger adapted the popular 1930s Colonel Blimp comic strip which, according to the Wikipedia entry, depicted a "pompous, irascible, jingoistic, and stereotypically British" type, and crafted a deeply felt, sympathetic character, played with gusto by Livesey, in an impeccably made film. Walbrook and Kerr contribute greatly and some exciting, innovative filmmaking, including some quick cutting montages, make this the essence of The Archer's considerable work.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Great Dictator

During an unnamed World War I battle, a Jewish barber (Charlie Chaplin) from the fictional country of Tomania saves the life of a superior officer and is immediately knocked into a coma. Released from the hospital two decades later, he returns to his shop where, unbeknownst to him, his people are persecuted at the behest of a vile dictator (Chaplin, again). "The Great Dictator", Chaplin's first genuine talking picture, functions great as propaganda, but is somewhat slight as a Chaplin movie which is just as well considering the historical context. The best comedic scenes involve gags with Chaplin as the vain, insecure dictator Adenoid Hynkel and his bullying ally Benzino Napaloni humorously portrayed by Jack Oakie. The final speech, a direct plea to the audience for peace and sanity, is surprising and moving.

In 2002, Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies, released a documentary entitled "The Tramp and the Dictator" which documented the paralleled lives of Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler and how his awareness of these similarities, no matter how trivial, spurned Chaplin to create "The Great Dictator." Kenneth Branagh narrates this intriguing film which features some remarkable, colorized making of footage.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Phil Spector

As Phil Spector's legal team scrambles to devise a suitable defense in the seemingly indefensible shooting death of cocktail waitress and aspiring actress Lana Clarkson, highly regarded yet sickly and deeply skeptical trial lawyer Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) signs on to the case. As she meets the intelligent, voltaitle, and dillusional legend (Al Pacino), she becomes a little starstruck by his meteoric achievements in the music industry, and begins to be convinced of his innocence. HBO's new film comes with a big, fat disclaimer attached to it. That being said, it is both a fascinating look at a legendary personality and an adept examination of our legal system, particularly notions of reasonable doubt and how it can be easily swayed in a jury. Writer/director David Mamet cuts to the chase and delivers a smart, succinct film while Pacino, as expected, hams up the role to great effect and has Mirren as his perfect counter.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Touki Bouki

A ranch hand and a college student engage in petty thievery in an attempt to escape their dismal, impoverished lives in Senegal and make for a new beginning in France. Djibril Diop Mambety's film meshes several styles, genres, and forms and creates a sporadically bizarre and definitely unique trip, exploitative exercise in realism. Magaye and Mareme Niang are both excellent in the lead roles and the De Gaulle Memorial parade sequence is a particular standout.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Partie de Campagne

A Parisian shop owner takes his wife, daughter, and apprentice (who is betrothed to his daughter) for an idyllic countryside respite where two locals have devices on the women and scheme to get them away from their men. "Partie de Campagne" is a light, well-made short, which a wonderfully realized ending, from master director Jean Renoir, who adapted a short story by Guy de Maupassant, a contemporary of his celebrated, impressionistic painter father.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Elizabeth

Following attempts by her heirless sister Mary to thwart her succession, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) takes the throne to command a troubled empire, one on the verge of bankruptcy and with a lacking army incapable of warding off imminent French and Spanish plots. Adding to this betrayal in her own court and the return of a banished lover (Joseph Fiennes), the young Queen learns the ropes of her reign and quickly demonstrates the tenacity which would predominate the following Golden Age of her rule. "Elizabeth" is most notable for Blanchett's whirlwind performance, and Geoffrey Rush is also good in a supporting role as a dubious member of her court. The love story with Fiennes is haphazard, much of the material is dull, and this story really calls for a more adept writer and director.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Miss Bala

A beautiful, impoverished young woman longs to win the Tijuana beauty contest, and does see her dream fulfilled, although it unfortunately comes at the hands of the ruthless cartel members she unluckily happens upon, who use her both as bait for their criminal enterprises and as a sex slave for their own personal devices. "Miss Bala" is an unrelenting exercise in realism, which features a fine performance from Stephanie Sigman, and had me all the way up until its way too fanciful ending.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mad Max

In a forsaken, post-apocalyptic Australia, chaos reigns in the form of vile biker gangs who pillage and plunder the vapid wasteland. When a policeman's wife and infant child are brutally murdered, the officer (Mel Gibson) turns instantly cold and swears unyielding revenge on the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne, repulsively terrifying) and the rest of his loathsome cohorts. George Miller's "Mad Max" is a kinetic Outback western that made Gibson a star and features some of the most brilliant stunt work and chase sequences ever committed to film. The pulse pounding score by Brian May (not of Queen, as I initially assumed) is also a particular standout.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Chimpanzee

A young, mischievous primate is separated from his mother and the rest of his troupe. After fending for himself awhile, he is adopted by the male leader of another tribe. "Chimpanzee" is like the majority of nature films being released in that it features astounding footage coupled with obnoxiously patronizing narration, here done by Tim Allen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Get the Gringo

Leading American authorities on a high speed chase with several million dollars of mob money in tow, the getaway driver (Mel Gibson) crashes his car through a border fence and is detained by Mexican authorities. Detained illegally in a deadly prison that functions like a city, he relies on the help of a young boy to learn the ropes while plotting his a escape and plan to recover his money. "Get the Gringo" is third rate trash which earns its direct to video distribution. Gibson proves he can still carry a film, which makes matters all the more pathetic considering this is the kind of rubbish both he and the industry have relegated himself to.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Breaking Away

In Bloomington, a group of local teenagers, or Cutters as they're not so affectionately referred to as by students of the nearby University of Indiana, goof around and struggle with their dim prospects. One of their members (Dennis Christopher), who's obsessed with Italy's top cycling team and Italian culture in general, begins romancing a cute college student while gearing his buddies to participate in the cycling championship, in the first year that Cutters will be allowed to participate. Peter Yates' "Breaking Away" is a charming, endearing, and good-spirited movie which features fine early performances from Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, and Christopher and two extraordinary racing sequences (Yates also helmed "Bullitt" which contains what is largely considered the the greatest chase sequence) which place this among the finest sports movies ever crafted.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

A motley band of ruffians, perennial losers of the Pirate of the Year Award and not so much terrors of the high seas, plot to win the prestigious honor in a scheme involving \Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, his ship The Beagle, and the last known dodo. "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" is an amiable stop-motion animated feature, geared more towards kids than adults, and not quite up to par with some of the other releases from Aardman.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Royal Tenenbaums

Attorney Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) raised three child prodigies (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson) with his wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) in their Archer Avenue home, then promptly abandoned his family when they needed him most. Two decades later, finding himself in financial straits and his wife set to marry her accountant (Danny Glover), Royal informs his estranged, dysfunctional clan that he is dying of stomach cancer and reinserts himself back into their lives. "The Royal Tenenbaums" is a great looking, moderately amusing film that finds Wes Anderson (who cowrote the film with Owen Wilson, who is also featured) getting too carried away with his own sensibilities and penchant for art direction whose ship is largely righted by a virtuoso performance from Hackman and other veterans in the cast including Huston, Glover, and Bill Murray.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cat Ballou

A beautiful, brassy young woman (Jane Fonda) returns from school to her father's ranch where he is soon murdered by an assassin (Lee Marvin) sent by a development corporation. With the help of two con men she acquainted on the train home and her father's ranch hand, they contract a once great sharpshooter but now hopeless drunk (Marvin, again) to seek revenge on the responsible parties. "Cat Ballou" is a fun but slight and silly Western with Fonda appearing as beautiful as ever and Marvin turning in solid dual performances which won him, somewhat bafflingly, the Lead Actor Oscar.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Monsieur Lazhar

A Montreal middle school is rocked by the in-class suicide of one of their teachers. Offering his services as a substitute is Bachir, an immigrant escaping his own turmoils in Algeria, who perhaps takes an overly abrupt approach in helping his new students heal from their shock and grief. "Monsieur Lazhar" is an excellent school drama, Canada's submission for Best Foreign Film in 2012, which is seemingly stripped of all the cliches and expectations you would have for a film of this nature. Mohammed Fellag is superb in the title role.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson created his own brand of journalism, most notably in covering the Hell's Angels and his novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and became an icon for the counter culture in the process. While railing against what insulted his ideas of patriotism, Thompson became something equally detestable in promoting his own American brand of feckless, drunken, drugged out buffoonery. "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson"  is another superb entry from Alex Gibney, who shifted focus from larger topics in "Enron: the Smartest People in the Room" and "Taxi to the Darkside" to cover the outlandish journalist. Gibney works from a wealth of Thompson's own personal archives and interviewees who present what feels like a balanced reflection on the life of an abstruse individual.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Dictator

The ruler of a fictitious North African country (Sacha Baron Cohen), who hates people of all colors, race, and creed and oppresses his subjects with such wild glee, travels to address the U.N. who wish to impose sanctions on him for violating a nuclear arms treaty. In New York, he is kidnapped and replaced with a double, as part of a coup staged by his second in command (Ben Kingsley), and is forced to fend for himself as a common schmuck, which he does with the help of a dippy young woman (Anna Faris) who runs a health food store. "The Dictator" is mean spirited, crude, largely unfunny, but occasionally hilarious, but unlike his previous outings of "Borat" and "Bruno", there aren't enough laughs to sustain the entire picture.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Zorba the Greek

On his way to his property on the Isle of Crete, a melancholic British writer (Alan Bates) chances to meet Zorba, a bawdy, zest filled peasant (Anthony Quinn) who takes him under his wing and bestows his way of viewing the world. While overseeing a timber operation on his new friend's land, Zorba introduces him to a gorgeous and tragically doomed widow (Irene Papas) and also to the French madame (Lila Kedrova) whose bedchambers he finds himself a frequent guest. "Zorba the Greek" was a resounding success for director Mihalis Kakogiannis, who adapted Nikos Kazantzakis' equally beloved novel, and Anthony Quinn who is so good in the title role, and a match for it if there ever was one. The film features glorious black and white photography, which looked so refined is these later usages, and often overactive camera, which does service its excellent ending quite well. Alan Bates has kind of a quiet, thankless role which is odd because I can picture him playing Zorba later in his career, and Lila Kedrova has some moving sequences in the latter stages of the film.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Get Carter

Upon hearing of the death of his brother, a heartless London gangster travels north to Newcastle to exact his revenge on the parties responsible and rescue his niece from the pornographers whose company she has fallen in with. "Get Carter" is a tough minded, no nonsense neo-noir picture from director Mike Hodges which contains many scenes of abrupt and almost forced violence. Michael Caine demonstrates what a good actor he is in his portrayal of a totally callous and detached executioner, which may have been hard to believe in the hands of another performer.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

An intelligent, reticent, and slightly disturbed freshman (Logan Lerman) is befriended by two senior step siblings (Emma Watson, Ezra Miller) who introduce him to their outsider's world of parties, dances, diners, and late night Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings before being whisked away to college. I became interested in this film after learning that Stephen Chbosky had been handed the reins to direct the adaptation of his 1999 novel. So I checked out the novel, which I thought was excellent, and watched the film which adds some detail (but naturally leaves much out) and in some ways makes a nice companion to the book but largely fails to capture its alternately funny and somber tone. I often carp about people judging films by their books, but I have to do it here: despite turning in pretty good performances, Lerman, Miller, and even Watson (who I thought would be ideal) are miscast, and with Chbosky overseeing his own adaptation, I feel comfortable in saying that the movie doesn't quite do the book justice. On a sidenote, I am grateful to know what happens at a late night Rocky Horror recreation without ever having to find out for myself.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

When a bawdy and conniving Roman slave (Zero Mostel) realizes that his master's son pines for the beautiful young woman next door, he sees an opportunity to secure his freedom and works to secure a courtship between the two. After a prominent Roman soldier beats him to the punch and arranges to purchase the girl, he concocts a more outrageous plot. "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" is an amusing adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical and features his great raunchy songs, a hilarious performance from  the inimitable Mostel, and funny supporting roles from Jack Gilford and the great Buster Keaton in what proved to be his final film.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Che

Steven Soederbergh's two-part biopic of the iconic Argentinian doctor/revolutionary (Benicio del Toro, excellent) first shows his efforts in successfully uniting the people of Cuba to overthrow the government and install his friend Fidel Castro (Demian Bechir, also good) into power followed by his similarly mounted, but doomed campaign in Bolivia. In response to attacks on this film, Soederbergh decried the hypocritical damned if you do, damned if you don't situation where critics and audiences will chastise conventionialism in films then demand something more to the norm when they are presented with something totally off base. While I am inclined to agree with the eclectic director, I would also add that either way, a narrative drive is crucial, which is missing almost entirely from this four plus hour movie. I wouldn't even call "Che" a good documentative recreation (which is what it is striving for) because even nonfiction filmmakers know that their films must move to some end and hold some modicum of interest. Soederbergh's style is versatile and deep, but he stumbles greatly when he feels the need to (over)experiment (see "Bubble" or "The Girlfriend Experience". Or don't rather). Also, the film is so fawning, and although I am not an expert on Mr Guevara's life or politics, if what we are led to believe is true he was either an inerrant saint or we have been presented with a one-sided, incomplete though interminable portrait of a frankly uninteresting anarchist

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Wizard of Oz

With the unnecessary prequel due out this week, which I don't even feel obligated to see, I revisited the timeless classic and again found myself mesmerized. Here's something brief I wrote about it the last time I journeyed down the Yellow Brick Road a few years back:


What is it about this movie? What makes it so timeless? How can it be so familiar and at the same time so fun and engaging? How can it be based on a book with cultural references and allusions that were outdated by the time filming began, and certainly hold no direct relevance today? Is it the basic message of the film that grabs people, but that too is so tired and sappy, but still how does it never fail to be moving? How can it be so miraculous on so many levels, but so common on so many others? How do the sets which are obviously sets sloppily merge with the backdrops which are obviously backdrops to create arguably the most recognizable and cherished film setting in history? And color had been around, but how did they make it so radiant and glorious? This is a film that defies explanation. It's not the fact that it's in color, it's that it knows it's in color, and knows it alive, and everyone who has seen it knows its a great film, and anyone would be a fool to question that.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Parade's End

A logistically minded, straight arrow (Benedict Cumberbatch) marries his aristocratic girlfriend (Rebecca Hall) despite the fact that the child she carries may very well not be his. Enduring years of psychological torment from the cruel woman while, he entertains the idea of an affair with a sunny school teacher and suffragette (Adelaide Clemens) before being shipped off to command in the trenches of France. "Parade's End" is a five part miniseries written by Tom Stoppard who adapted three of the four novels written by Ford Madox Ford in the mid-1920s. The series is wonderfully directed by Susanna White, containing brilliant photography, and features excellent performances, especially from Hall who plays a complex, ruthless character much different from the usually sweet, American roles she has come to play in recent years. Cumberbatch turns in excellent work also, although his thick accent makes him nearly impossible to understand at times, and newcomer Clemens is very endearing in a role that needs more fleshing out. Despite these attributes, the series contains many lulls and focuses on too many uninteresting subplots.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Billy Elliot

In a British mining community in the early 80s, in the midst of a union strike his bitter father and rebellious brother are taking part in, a sensitive young boy catches the eye of the local ballet troupe during his boxing instruction and, against all logical probability, determines to be a dancer. Director Stephen Daldry's smash hit works great as series of self-contained scenes, but is jumbled and incoherent when strung together, especially the interspersed dances sequences. The same can be said of the strike scene are also superbly crafted but play no better than a music video and add very little to the picture. The movie does have true spirit, although many of its endearing turns aren't always believable  That being said, Jamie Bell thrives in the title role and Julie Walters is a standout as his dance instructor.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton was an American painter whose personality was as large and robust as the many murals he created throughout his lifetime. Born in Missouri and studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, Hart went on to study in Paris and mentor Jackson Pollock before crafting many lifescape murals which depicted the American story. "Thomas Hart Benton" is Ken Burns' excellent presentation of the artist's life, offering his biography, work, family interviews, and also the viewpoints of proponents and detractors in this cumulative documentary.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog

A yellow lab is determined by his master to be special  and sent to live with a family who trains guide dogs. Separated again while still a puppy, he then enrolls in a school where he struggles to keep pace but shows great instinct for the art of blind assistance. His first human charge is a cantankerous writer (Kaoru Kobayashi in an enjoyable, hammy performance) who is scared to give up his cane but quickly forms a bond with the extraordinary pooch. In keeping with my misanthropic duties, I feel obligated to say that films about pets are too easy to do. That being said, "Quill: The Life of a Guide Dog" is a sweet, funny, and disarming family film. Made in Japan in 2004, it's shocking that it took eight years to find distribution, and if the great American fear of subtitles played a factor (which I suspect it did), those buying into that idiocy are missing out on a movie they would surely cherish.