Saturday, August 31, 2013

Hit and Run

An ex-getaway driver (Dax Shepard) living under witness protection offers to escort his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) on a lengthy road trip to a job interview and finds his safety threatened first by her jealous ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum) and then by one of his former cohorts (Bradley Cohort) whom he snitched on. Shepard wrote and co-directed this smarmy, self-indulgent film that is almost made worthwhile by Rosenbaum's and especially Cooper's supporting performance.

Friday, August 30, 2013

New York, New York

As the city elates in celebration at the announcement of victory in Japan, a saxophone player (Robert De Niro) relentlessly pursues a lounge singer (Liza Minnelli), and their eventual marriage falters as her success soars. With New York, New York, you can see director Martin Scorsese get lost in his tribute to the big budget MGM musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood, who also must of been ecstatic to work with the daughter of two people who made so many of those great films. Here, Liza has several good musical numbers and her sweetness is evident, but her appeal is not, and De Niro creates an inviolable, incredibly frustrating character. The set design is impressive, as is Laszlo Kovacs' cinematography, but it's not nearly enough to sustain the picture. What is of interest are the seeds of jealously and possessiveness in the De Niro character that would manfest themself completely and ceaselessly in Raging Bull.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Wild One

After winning a biking competition, a rough and tumble motorcycle gang takes over and terrorizes a small California town while their leader (Marlon Brando) falls for the daughter (Mary Murphy) of the local bar owner. Laslo Benedek's The Wild One features crisp black and white cinematography from Hal Mohr, and is remembered for the early, brash performance from a defiant Brando, who is excellent and appealing in his part (A young Lee Marvin is also entertaining as a rival gang leader). Although the film is noted as a generation defining work of its time, besides these noted assets, it isn't anything more than a glorified public service announcement.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


1900 tracks the lives of two men born on the same day on the same Italian plantation, one the son of the landowner (Robert De Niro), the other an illegitimate peasant (Gerard Depardieu). Together they go they their own separate routes defined by their class differences and labor stances, amidst the rise of fascism and Mussolini's ascendancy. Bernardo Bertolucci's intensely personal film is incredibly long and unnecessarily crude which is partially redeemed by Depardieu's impassioned performance and Vittorio Storaro's extraordinary cinematography. Oddly and to great frustration, the film's entire five and a half hour duration feels like prologue, as you wait and wait for the moment it will take off, which never arrives.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Night at the Opera

The Marx Brothers invade high society and scheme their way into the latest production of the New York Opera Company, while also procuring a role for a friendly tenor who hopes himself to win the affections of a lovely chorus girl. A Night at the Opera is not only one of the greatest Marx Brothers films, but also at the pinnacle of film comedies in general. So, upon eagerly returning to it recently, I must confess I was a little disappointed by how much of it is taken up by lame song and dance numbers and sappy romantic interludes, facts I must have blocked out of my memory or which had been minimized by the otherwise hilarious raucousness that dominates the rest of this film, whose highlights include the "party of the first part" sequence and the unfathomably staged Stateroom Scene.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Robot & Frank

In the near future (or an alternate present), an aging, ex-cat burglar (Frank Langella) seems forgetful to his self-consumed children (James Marsden, Liv Tyler) who decide the best recourse is to provide him with a robot assistant (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) to help around the house and keep him company. After initially resisting the idea, the old man eventually embraces his new friendship and plots to includes his new automated companion in his coming out of retirement plans. Robot & Frank has an incredibly silly premise and nonetheless yields surprisingly poignant results thanks to the straightforward, excellent performance of Langella and a humorous screenplay.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How to Survive a Plague

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s, members of the activist groups TAG (Treatment Action Group) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) took to the streets to challenge both lawmakers and pharmaceutical companies to make a swifter, surer, and more cost effective method to combat the deadly disease. How to Survive a Plague documents its subject very well thanks to substantial stock footage and an insider's viewpoint provided by key members of both groups who discuss not only the tactics, motivations, and solidarity which united them, but also the different modes of thinking and petty infighting which threatened to thwart the movement.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Death and the Civil War

With approximately 620,000 lives lost during the Civil War, there was scarcely a household, North or South, that wasn't ravaged by the grief of this immediate influx of loss that altered the American terrain swiftly and forever. Ric Burns' Death and the Civil War plays like an affixation to his brother Ken's monumental, epic length documentary, of which he was also a contributor. The film is as mournful as its title would indicate and as poetic and intelligent as you would assume a continuation, albeit an unofficial one, of that great work would be, and benefits from the narrowed view of its scope, conveying its sorrowful message thoroughly.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Don't Look Now

An architect (Donald Sutherland) accepts a restoration job in Venice and travels with his wife (Julie Christie), mostly to recover emotionally following the drowning death of their daughter. Amidst the presence of a serial killer stalking the ancient city, the couple witnesses several strange occurrences including an encounter with two creepy old psychic women who bear ominous signs of their doom. Based on a story by Daphne du Maurier, whose works inspired several well known Hitchcock films (Rebecca, The Birds), Don't Look Now is a fairly standard horror movie crafted at the highest level by director Nicolas Roeg. His film is impeccably photographed and edited, including a notorious, kinetic sex scene between Christie and Sutherland, who are also both excellent in their roles. I think I was expecting something more from this movie. I had been looking forward to seeing this highly acclaimed film as a hopeful departure from the dreck that passes as horror material in today's cinema, but its story (and I want to reemphasize that that's all I'm referring too) does not really elevate it at all. That being said, I can't imagine the picture being done any better and I suspect I would enjoy it more upon a  subsequent viewing.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Silent Souls

A resident of the small village of Neya, Russia helps his friend bury his recently deceased wife according to the painstaking, ritualistic guidelines of the Meryans, their ancient people. Silent Souls is a turgid and plodding film (I thought a lot about Tarakovsky's Stalker during the movie) that does contain fine cinematography and some impressive visuals, but still feels interminable even at a meager 75 minute running length.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sunset Blvd.

A jaded Hollywood hack screenwriter (William Holden), on the run from repo men looking to repossess his car, has a blow out and pulls into a garage of a seemingly deserted mansion on the titular roadway. There he is greeted by a stout and morose butler (film director Erich von Stroheim) and informed that he is in the presence of greatness--that is in the presence of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, also a former silent star), a forgotten, aging, and delusional star of the silent screen. Now, seeing an opportunity, she keeps the writer as a financial prisoner and play toy as she plots her return to the screen. Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd is a darkly cynical insider's indictment of Hollywood replete with incredible cinematography, a brilliantly snappy script, and two amazing, polar opposite lead performances.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Butler

A young man witnessing the horrors of plantation life in the 1920s South escapes to learn the trade of a house servant. Soon he finds a post in the White House, leading a life of passivity while serving no less than seven presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan. Meanwhile, against his wishes, his eldest son become a participant in the key events of the ever evolving Civil Rights Movement. With the struggle that ensued in the titling of this film (there is also an early Warner Brothers short of the same name), Lee Daniels may as well have gone with the title Forrest Gump: The Civil Rights Years, with his character's frequent presidential encounters and ubiquitous historical presence. The Butler is an overly preachy and pious movie with so many conflicting ideologies, which is well made nonetheless and enjoyable for its performances, headlined by Forest Whitaker who again demonstrates what a thoughtful and powerful actor he is. Oprah, in a rare acting gig, is given an underdeveloped character to work with (all we get is that she is a bored, drunk, and neglected housewife), but I thought her performance was solid nonetheless. Also excellent are the actors playing their sons, namely David Oyelowo (36 years old playing a high school teenager in early scenes) and Elijah Kelley, Lenny Kravitz as a fellow White House servant, and Terrence Howard playing a shifty family friend. Also, the presidential casting is gimmicky and irritating (John Cusack as Nixon, gimme a break) and should have been handled with better consideration.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Following a banking scandal involving her sleek husband (Alec Baldwin), a delusional ex-Park Avenue debutante (Cate Blanchett) restarts her life and moves in with her estranged sister (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco. Having left her husband (Andrew Dice Clay), also a victim of the financial scheming, she has resettled with a similarly frank and hot blooded blue collared guy (Bobby Cannavale) who ruffles their new houseguest's feathers. For a guy going on 78 who still cranks out a film a year, expectations are still exceedingly high for a Woody Allen film. My thing with his films is, whether ranging from great (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters) to meh (From Rome with Love, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), there is always something to appreciate, and this one falls somewhere in the middle, with a story and lead performance that grow on you as the movie progresses. The reason to see this movie, though, is its great San Francisco locations and exceptional cast which also includes Peter Saarsgard, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Louie C.K.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Silent Movie

A has been director (Mel Brooks) and his loyal assistants (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman) devise the perfect plan to put his name back on the marquee: a silent picture, the first one in decades. Although hesitant, the studio head (Brooks' mentor Sid Caesar) agrees only if he can procure nothing less than the industry's biggest stars including Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, Anne Bancroft, and Paul Newman. Here Brooks takes on the admirable charge of crafting a completely silent movie (with one famous, ironical exception) and does so mostly with wit and impressive craft. Like many of his movies, some of the gags go on for too long and many miss the mark, but for the most part Silent Movie is an irreverent good time.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Man with a Movie Camera

Shot in several Russian cities, Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera is an unabashedly experimental film with two goals in mind: to capture the day-to-day activities of the people and demonstrate a vast array of camera techniques at the same time. MWAMC sparked my interest when it skyrocketed into the top ten of the esteemed, most recent Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll and I don't really have anything else to add other than seeing this hypnotic, seemingly impossibly compiled masterwork is a once in a lifetime gem.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Me and Orson Welles

In 1937, an affable teenager (Zach Braff) ditches class, heads to the big city, and scores a minor role in the Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar directed by Orson Welles (Christian McKay), the Boy Wonder who was on the cusp of unprecedented successes in radio, theater, and film. Me and Orson Welles is a fabulous coming-of-age story made in a 1930s screwball vein by the ubiquitous Richard Linklater, a filmmaker who placidly moves from genre to genre to the point that his talent has gone somewhat unsung. McKay is phenomenal in embodying the gusto and personage of Welles and Braff is actually pretty good in a well-cast role.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

High Anxiety

Following the suspicious death of its prior director, distinguished psychiatrist Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) takes up his mantle at the Institute for the Very, Very, Nervous and quickly notices that things there are a little off. Soon he finds himself way in over his head, having been chased by hordes of birds, attacked in the shower, and wrongly implicated for murder.  Brooks' High Anxiety is a silly spoof and homage to Alfred Hitchcock, which the Master of Suspense was reputed to have enjoyed. Many of the gags fall flat (a shower scene where Brooks is stabbed with a rolled-up newspaper is a particular dud) with the only really funny bits coming from Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, and Madeline Kahn who are essentially reprising their roles in previous Brooks' films.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton's novella detailing the lives of impoverished, small-town Oklahoma "greasers" and their struggles with the sadistic, overprivileged "socs" is a perennial favorite among young readers. When I learned that the movie had been made after an 8th grade class wrote a letter to Francis Ford Coppola urging him to do so, I decided to give the book a whirl, and kind of regretted doing so. Fortunately, however, this is one of those rare occasions where a film is better than the book, thanks largely to Coppola's visual stylings. The film is still hurt by the book's trappings and the acting is pretty atrocious, although I did enjoy Matt Dillon's performance in a cast of budding actors which includes Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio, and Rob Lowe.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Clear History

A bedraggled marketing executive (a long-haired, bearded Larry David) working for a smart car company on the cusp of global success decides to sell his shares after the CEO (Jon Hamm) decides to name their latest model The Howard. After losing a billion dollars followed by his hair, and becoming an international joke, he resettles anonymously in Martha's Vineyard and lives in relative happiness until his former boss decides to build a mansion right on the island. Clear History is a moderately amusing HBO TV movie directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) and features an impressive, amiable cast (Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan, Danny McBride, Kate Hudson, Philip Baker Hall, Eva Mendes) but is really nothing more than a lengthy, meandering episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

From One Second to the Next

From One Second to the Next is a 35 minute anti-texting public service announcement which I watched solely because it was crafted by Werner Herzog. The short plays like a master class in documentary filmmaking (which, as I always add, is in a sad state) and features four cases of texting-and-driving victims and perpetrators telling their agonizing stories, a vital lesson on something most of us have been guilty of, as told by people whose lives were changed in an instant because of it.

Kramer vs. Kramer

A bored and depressed housewife (Meryl Streep) leaves her struggling yuppie ad executive husband (Dustin Hoffman) to tend to their young son (Justin Henry), only to return a year and a half later seeking custody in a vicious courtroom battle. Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer, a Best Picture winning adaptation of Avery Corman's novel, is a rich, gorgeously photographed film whose subject matter is occasionally contrived and which almost totally unravels in the phony courtroom sequences featuring absurd attorneys and scores of false sentiment. Hoffman and Streep aren't nearly as great as their Oscar trophies they received for this movie would indicate, but I did like work of Jane Alexander, excellent in playing their mutual friend. In the end I did enjoy several of the sequences and, again, the photography and direction are amazing but I'm not really sure why this is considered such a landmark film and for a better study of its subject I would recommend watching Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll

Born to Arkansan cotton farmers in 1915, Sister Rosetta Tharpe would find her considerable voice in a traveling gospel choir, relocate to Chicago, and eventually find herself being the forerunner of Rock 'n' Roll with her powerful sound creating a now forgotten fame and inspiring the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. The Godmother of Rock & Roll features great performance footage, bearing witness to the thunderous performer, but is surprisingly short on background detail, running under an hour, and it would have been nice to learn a little more about this unfortunately relatively unknown artist.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Last Play at Shea

In 1964, the newly founded New York Mets began their often miserable, occasionally joyous run at Shea Stadium in the same working class area of Queens where a young Billy Joel and his family had moved. On July 16th and 18th, 2008 Joel closed out Shea with two sold out shows before its slated demolition. Last Play at Shea incorporates both concert footage of the epic send-off and a history  of the performer, the stadium, and their team making this unique film a peach for Billy Joel fans and a compelling historical document.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

5 Broken Cameras

On a camera bought to film his newborn son, Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat also found it capturing the actions of Israelis settling in his small village, the footage of which (five cameras later) was edited by Israel native Guy Davidi. 5 Broken Cameras, a documentary containing material so authentic it should speaks for itself, instead turns into an act of self-aggrandizement by its director who does still manage to show the asininity of the conflict.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


In the mid-22nd Century, pollution and overcrowding have made the planet Earth no longer hospitable for rich white people, who now inhabit a utopian colony on a gigantic 2001-like hamster wheel orbiting in space. After being accidentally trapped in a radiation chamber at his factory job and given five days to live, an ex-con (Matt Damon) becomes part of a deadly scheme to steal a vital computer chip which will gain access the great outpost's mainframe, making it's benefits available to the masses, and thus being able to save his life and that of the sickly daughter of his childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga). Neill Blomkamp's follow-up to his wildly successful District 9  is somewhat an extension and what I would consider an improvement. It contains the same generalized social problems (here immigration and socialized medicine replaced the travails of the South African ghettos) and features cliched basic story elements. That being said, I can't remember the last time an action picture pulled me in this much and Blompkamp does a very interesting thing here by demonstrating the brutal randomness of the violence despite his heightened sci-fi setting. Also, the special effects were seamless and not affected with the artificial glossiness that has plagued so many other big budget movies. Damon does a fine job carrying the film, as we all know he's capable of, Braga turns in fine work as the love interest, and Sharlto Copley, the star of District 9, is frightening as a rogue government operative on Damon's trail. After a convalescent summer (make that the entire year) at the box office, it finally awakens with Elysium, a movie that proves that big budget filmmaking need not be stupid or, in baffling recent cases, boring.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

In 1960, Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, her debut book and a contender for what could be the definitive American novel, detailing a young girl growing up in the Depression era South as her stoic attorney father defends a wrongfully accused black sharecropper. The book earned Lee a Pulitzer and instant fame and led to one of the greatest screen adaptations of all-time, and despite this glowing success, she began to refuse to speak to the press and has never published another novel since. Hey Boo features some great biographical detail, including stories of her Alabama childhood spent with playmate Truman Capote or a touching story involving a New York City couple who recognized her talent and put her up for a year to write the novel. However, as is the case with so many of these individual profiles, the film features too many "experts" making trite observations or telling you things you already know, in this case about the book and its times.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Ted, the story of a grown man (Mark Wahlberg) trying finally to rid himself of his foul mouthed childhood companion (voice of Seth MacFarlane) after it jeopardizes his relationship with his long-term girlfriend (Mila Kunis), was a movie I was trying to avoid. Yet after garnishing heaps of positive feedback I decided to check it out anyway and got pretty much what I expected, frankly not finding any of the scenes featuring writer/director MacFarlane to be very amusing as he again employs that same tired Family Guy brand of humor. That being said, this is the kind of movie where Wahlberg thrives in and I enjoyed bit performances from Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, and a funny cameo by Flash Gordon's Sam Jones. Still, the movie goes on way too long, especially during a climactic chase through a famous Boston venue where you can actually picture MacFarlane sitting around with his Beantown pals afterwards saying, "Hey Affleck, the Fenway scene in my movie was way more wicked."

Sunday, August 4, 2013

La Dolce Vita

A week in the life of an aimless and disaffected gossip columnist (Marcello Mastroianni) as he goes from story to story and woman to woman throughout a decaying and decadent Rome, a lifestyle that, despite his dissatisfaction, he continues to cling to. La Dolce Vita contains so many themes, ideas, and notions (modernity vs. tradition, an amoral culture in a ruinous city, paternal sins being passed on,  and the benefits of a normal life compared to a "nightlife" [just to name a few]) and Italian master Federico Fellini does a masterful job of weaving them into a simultaneously beautiful and repulsive web. It features an unforgettable performance from Mastroianni and contains a final scene that belongs in the pantheon of great final scenes. This is difficult material to be sure, with some segments that are a little too protracted, but is as deep, layered, beautiful, and complex as the movies can get.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

To Die For

A beautiful, highly ambitious, and totally unscrupulous TV weatherwoman (Nicole Kidman) finds her career in standstill in small-town New Hampshire, which she largely attributes to her oafish lout of husband (Matt Dillon). When she begins work on a documentary project involving susceptible and unintelligible teenage boys at the local high school, she may have found a way to eradicate her pesky husband and thus obtain her ticket to stardom. From the true life crime novel by Joyce Maynard, To Die For is a salacious and compelling satirical film from Gus Van Sant and screenwriter Buck Henry which features a whirlwind performance from Nicole Kidman. The film is told in a mockumentary style which, possibly due to the genre's overuse today, comes off as trite at first before the true weight of the film is gradually revealed. In support to Kidman, there are several fine performances including Dillon, Ileanna Douglass as his suspecting sister, Wayne Knight as the station manager, and a very young Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix as the dupes to her grand criminal scheme.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Man and a Woman

A recently widowed stock car driver (Jean-Louis Trintignant) meets a beautiful young woman (Anouk Aimee), who has also just lost her spouse, at their children's school and, in spite of their fresh wounds and initial hesitance, the two embark on a relationship. Invariably reviews of Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman will refer to it, in one way or another, as the categorical date movie, which it assuredly is. Beyond that, it is a gorgeously photographed picture, alternating between profuse color and stark black and white stock, and features excellent work from Trintignant and Aimee.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Taxi Driver

A damaged, unstable loner (Robert De Niro) takes a job driving a cab at night where the degradations of the sweltering city feeds into his madness. After a brief courtship with a beautiful campaign worker (Cybill Shepherd) is terminated, his obsessions turn towards saving the life of a 12-year-old prostitute (Jodie Foster), an unrelenting mission that will lead to a melee of urban violence. Taxi Driver is an uncommonly good film, deep and layered, which engulfs you in the weathers of a man's soul, a first person account if ever there was one in the history of film. Martin Scorsese, in what I feel to be his magnum opus, and screenwriter Paul Schrader use the city to create a terrifying canvas and De Niro demonstrates just what a consummate actor he is, fully immersing himself in his character's dreadful plight and taking the viewer right along with him. This is the kind of film that does not supply easy answers, forces the audience to think, and gets better each time you endure it.