Friday, February 28, 2014

The Spectacular Now

An aimless, alcoholic high school senior (Miles Teller) has just been broken up with by his "totally amazing" girlfriend (Brie Larson), who sees him as a stumbling block to success. In response he attends a party, gets wrecked, and is woken up on a totally unfamiliar lawn the following morning by a sweet natured girl next door type (Shailene Woodley) whom he quickly falls in love with. James Ponsoldt's honest and observant teenage romance is slightly underwritten yet is incredibly well photographed with a great cinematic eye. Though Teller gives his best effort and succeeds in being moderately engaging, he is miscast and not exactly believable in his demanding role. On the other hand, Ms. Woodley is absolutely delightful appearing unvarnished and demonstrating both her character's inner and outer beauty. A somewhat worrisome quibble that arises, although the film makes a clear effort not to preach or judge its characters, is in sending out mixed or undefined messages on issues raised of both teenage alcoholism and codependency.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

A bored and lonely middle aged single mother (Delphine Seyrig) goes about her day-to-day chores in her modest Brusssels apartment while caring for her ineffectual teenaged son, entertaining an occasional gentlemen caller, and very, very gradually coming apart at the seams. Chantal Akerman's landmark feminist masterpiece is a meticulously observant, laborious, and immensely rewarding undertaking that no plot description could do any justice to (I personally was glad I saw it in theaters, removed from the many distractions of home viewing which would surely have diminished its effect). The film features a superb central performance and shocking denouement, and greatly makes the case for staging, set design, and valium.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thomas Jefferson

The life of the famed statesman, inventor, writer, founder of the University of Virginia, and Third President of the United States is documented in all its brilliance, glory, and controversy by Ken Burns in this extensive two-part PBS feature. Thomas Jefferson features outstanding photography and primary sources, grows wearisome with some of its editorialization and guest commentary, but does its best to faithfully represent a truly adept, enigmatic, and not easily pigeonholed historical figure.

Sweet Smell of Success

Sidney Falco is a seedy low-rent press agent desperate to be mentioned in J.J. Hunsecker's make or break gossip column, knowing it will be his ticket to the bigtime. In order to curry the all-powerful columnist's favor, Falco plots to destroy the reputation of a respectable guitar player currently in a relationship with Hunsecker's kid sister. Following several successful comedies at Ealing Studios, which include The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, Alex Mackendrick crossed the Atlantic to craft this hopelessly cynical and impeccably shot noir. The ruthless screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman is endlessly quotable and features witty interplay and relentless dialogue which is acted to a hilt by Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, as the agent and journalist respectively, who are ideal in their roles. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Some Like It Hot

When two caddish band members (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) inadvertently witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre while paying on a bet, their surest way out of town (and to stay gainfully employed) is to don a dress and hop a train as members of an all-girl band bound for a gig in Miami. On board they meet a voluptuous fellow member of their company (Marilyn Monroe) and are both immediately smitten. While Lemmon becomes distracted by an infatuated millionaire (Joe E. Brown, hysterical), Curtis feigns his way as his own self-made man to win the girl's affections at the same time as the mob hosts a convention in town. Billy Wilder's witty and hilarious seminal classic hosts finely tuned performances from Lemmon and Curtis and features Monroe at her screen sexiest and a finely tuned acting turn as well.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Woman in the Dunes

A teacher on sabbatical performing entomological studies in a remote desert misses his bus back to Tokyo and is given lodging in a deep, cavernous sand pit inhabited solely by a young woman. When he attempts to leave the following morning and finds the rope ladder has disappeared, it soon becomes apparent he has been enslaved to provide companionship to his new bunkmate and take part in the futile task of shoveling sand for the locals to sell. Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes is a powerful, sexually charged, incredibly well done allegory that is terrifying both in presentation and implication. Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida, playing the man and the woman respectively, deliver brave and haunting performances, and the film features a stunning use of sand photography.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Open Range

Two cowboys, one aged and content (Robert Duvall), the other a troubled Civil War vet (Kevin Costner) roam the prairies and carry out their duties as the last of a dying breed. When their sweet-natured cohort (Abraham Benrubi) rides into town for supplies and a go-round at the local saloon, he is beaten within an inch of his life by the hands of a ruthless land baron (Michael Gambon). When his men storm later storm their camp and finish the job they started, the two cattlemen swear vengeance on all held accountable. Open Range is imperfect, longish, and not as gritty and violent as most westerns of the modern era, but features beautiful scenic photography and has the same meditative, thoroughly becoming quality as did Lonesome Dove. Duvall fits his role like a glove, Annette Bening's tender character does add to the picture though I'm not sure her subplot was entirely necessary, and I especially like Costner's thoughtful work here as both director and star.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Girl with a Pearl Earring

The storyline surrounding the famous title painting, which involves a new maid in Johannes Vermeer's household who quickly becomes his muse while stirring his wife's ire just as fast, are fictitiously filled in in this adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel, penned by Olivia Hetreed and directed by Peter Webber. The film features amazing photography and wonderful detail which serve to faithfully depict the artist's craft and match the film to his gorgeous canvasses. Colin Firth gives a fine, measured performance as Vermeer, Scarlett Johansson is off, succeeding only in becoming a replica of her character, and certain story elements feel somewhat strained.


In 1947, when Norwegian thrill-seeker Thor Heyerdahl becomes convinced that Polynesia was settled by South Americans prior to Western exploration and finds nothing but opposition despite minor evidences obtained, he seeks to assemble a small crew and recreate the journey exactly as it would have been taken over 1,500 years ago. Based on Heyerdahl's book recounting his extraordinary journey and the Oscar winning 1950 documentary, Kon-Tiki is an old fashioned, straightforwardly told, and often exciting entertainment.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

At Any Price

An unscrupulous farm seed proprietor (Dennis Quaid) contends with a maligned competitor (Clancy Brown), a wife (Kim Dickens) on the verge of discovering his mistress, an impending fraud investigation, and a restless son (Zac Efron) with aspirations of a stock car career in favor of taking over  the family business. With At Any Price, Ramin Bahrani opts for a bigger budget and a star cast, but still manages to tell a mostly compelling, though somewhat erratic, but still humanistic story. Efron is successful except for moments that call for the highest drama and I connected with Quaid even though his performance with toothy and mannered. The radiant newcomer Maika Monroe is quite good playing Efron's runaway girlfriend whom the family takes in.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Last Year at Marienbad

At a party at a French chateau, a woman referred to only as A is approached by a man known only as X who tries to convince her they met a year ago at another gathering, while another man, M, who may or may not be her husband, looms in the shadows. Alan Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet, is a hypnotic, jigsaw puzzle of a movie which achieves the incredible feat of suspending disbelief entirely in a work completely devoid of plot.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

House of Games

A successful, recently published, somewhat uptight Chicago psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) heads to the other side of tracks to confront a low-rent bookie (Joe Mantenga) in hopes that he will relinquish a despondent client's penny-ante gambling debt. Instead she becomes enamored with the swindler and begins to learn the art of the small con. David Mamet's directorial debut is a brilliant, tough-talking, cold-hearted con movie whose many angles make it always prime to revisit over and over again. Mantenga gives an excellent performance while deftly spinning the tongue twisting dialogue and Crouse is also brilliant (something I didn't see my first time through) in a subtle, nuanced performance.

Ride with the Devil

In Missouri territory during the Civil War, a Bushwacker (Tobey Maguire) and the rest of his band of Southern loyalists engage in brutal guerilla warfare against the Union hopeful Kansas Jayhawkers. He eventually joins forces with a black soldier (Jeffrey Wright), in the curious position of fighting for the same Rebel cause, and gradually learns of the man's predicament as the two share stories and ride out the war together. Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil is gorgeously filmed and has a unique point of view for a war picture but is ultimately hurt by overlength, redundancy, and unconvincing acting, Maguire being the biggest culprit. Wright turns in an nuanced performance in an underdeveloped role.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Body Heat

In the midst of a blistering Florida heat wave, a bored small time defense attorney (William Hurt) takes up with a sexy seductress (Kathleen Turner) and is soon ensnared in an intricate scheme to murder her well-to-do husband (Richard Crenna) and collect on his life insurance policy. Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat, his debut as a director, is a film that is so involving and so at home in its own perspirating skin that it invites that forbidden thought suggesting it matches and possibly outdoes those cold, sinuous noir classics it so clearly emulates. Hurt's outstanding, laconic performance adds to the movie's sweltering spell and helps reenforce the plot's many webs while Turner is no less impressive as the femme fatale who seems to be two steps ahead of everyone, audience included. The film is rounded out with strong supporting performers which include Crenna as the tough talking mark, Ted Danson as an animated assistant district attorney, and Mickey Rourke in his breakthrough role as one of Hurt's useful former clients.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

(spoilers herein) An arrogant cardsharp (Warren Beatty) opens a gambling joint in an upstart western mining city so young that it barely has the frames of its houses filled it. When a beautiful, classy prostitute (Julie Christie) convinces him he needs her expertise to oversee his whorehouse, he finds in her both a business partner and an awkward lover. However, when his bustling operation comes to the attention of a large mining company, whose negotiating agents he refuses to play ball with, McCabe finds his livelihood and personal well being in the hands of a ruthless band of mercenaries. With its beautifully lit photography, very human performances from Beatty and Christie, and a screenplay interested foremost in the sociological behavior of its characters, Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a western that is so distinct and well-defined, it places itself in a class apart from other entries in the genre. It also features several haunting icy demises, namely the finale and Keith Carradine's senseless, unforgettable rope bridge execution.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

War of the Worlds

On the evening of October, 30th 1938, a country frazzled by economic depression, impending war in Europe, and a series of national catastrophes was primed to be exploited and terrified by Orson Welles, the boy wonder who had already conquered the Broadway stage, along with the rest of his CBS Mercury Theater radio crew, through a surreal, pulse pounding broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. This documentary essay crafted for the American Experience series is a succinct, informative, and stirring account of both the fearful climate at the time of the infamous Panic Broadcast, as it soon became known, and a fascinating look into Welles' creative process and his responses during the fallout. The only component of the film that doesn't quite come off, though it must have seemed like a good idea, are the recreations of first person reactions to the transmission. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Late Show

"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it"
A crabby private investigator (Art Carney), in bad health and barely taking in enough cases to pay the rent, has his former partner turn up dead on his doorstep and, in keeping with Sam Spade's mantra listed above, determines not to rest until the culprits are caught. When he simultaneously takes on the case of a missing cat brought to him by a dippy new-aged woman (Lily Tomlin), he finds both queries pointing in the same direction. Robert Benton's The Late Show is a humorous, well made, and mostly successful reimagining of a Raymond Chandleresque noir featuring a fantastic performance from Carney and an occasionally irritating but mostly winning turn by Tomlin.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Way West/The West

In the mid-90s, PBS premiered two unremarkable documentaries on Westward Expansion, the first entitled The Way West by Ric Burns, the second simply called The West, which was more or less an extension presented by his brother Ken under the direction of Stephen Ives. Ric Burn's film is extremely dismal and grows redundant while focusing almost exclusively on the Indian Wars and receives little help from its uninspired cast and vapid contributors. Ives' followup casts a bigger net and generates more interest but is still dreary, repetitive, and somewhat disappointing considering the  inherent allure of its topic. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Forbidden Planet

Several centuries into the future, a space crew is dispatched to a foreign planet to determine the fate of another unit that went missing two decades prior. Upon arrival they meet a friendly, impeccably programmed, and super intelligent robot but receive a stern, ominous warning from the colony's leader (Walter Pidgeon) as it soon becomes apparent that he is harnessing a deadly secret. Forbidden Planet is a cheesy though quite well done B science fiction picture, ahead of its time, and containing fun special effects and performances while also featuring a rousing denouement and powerful message.


Immediately following the close of World War II, the children of a once esteemed Nazi couple, led by their headstrong, eponymous daughter, embark on a vast journey from their home in Hamburg to their grandmother's residence nearly 600 miles away in order to avoid Allied persecution. Based on a novel entitled The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, Cate Shortland's Lore is an historical drama that is more concerned with its picturesque imagery than telling any sort of compelling story and never during its turgid duration did I get to truly know who these characters were nor was I compelled to care about their considerable plight.

Friday, February 7, 2014

City Lights

After the dedication of a local monument chases him from his new resting place, the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) stumbles upon a beautiful, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) and makes it his life's work to raise the necessary funds to procure an corrective ocular operation, a mission that will lead him to gigs as a street sweeper and pugilist, and also into an inconsistent friendship with a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers). Still swimming against the tide of talking pictures, and with a few pointed barbs towards the still new format thrown in for good measure, Charlie Chaplin's mostly silent masterpiece may be the taciturn legend's finest expression as writer, director, and star. Poignant and often uproariously funny, City Lights is a joy from top to bottom and contains one of the most touching endings of all time.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Savages

Two struggling, intellectual, and nearly estranged siblings, an unpublished playwright (Laura Linney) in an affair with a married man and her older brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a philosophy teacher and expert on Brecht though totally hopeless in his personal life, receive word that their completely estranged father has begun using his stool as finger paint and it may be time to place him in a home. When his partner drops dead, that process gets kicked into high gear and the siblings begin analyzing their own shortcomings and destinations during the painful process of seeing their father to his life's end. Tamara Jenkins' Savages is a perceptive, literate, and very funny film which doesn't go the often taken easy route through its material and while occasionally pushing the envelope on its level of discomfort, it always remains dynamic thanks to the distinct, humanized performances from its consummate stars. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Monuments Men

In a prequel of sorts to the Oceans 11 series, a glib art historian (George Clooney) assembles an team of architects, artists, and museum directors (Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Bob Balaban) to undergo special forces training and enter the European Theater in an effort to retrieve art stolen by the Nazis, with their ace in the hole being a Resistance member (Cate Blanchett) who once served as secretary to a top looting officer. For such surefire plot material, the kind which has lent to the success of dozens of similar war features, The Monuments Men is a perplexing and bumbling disaster on all accounts in the hands of director Clooney, who adapted Robert Edsel and Bret Witter's historical novel with his producing partner Grant Heslov. Never knowing exactly what pace to use or tone to set, Clooney assembles a charismatic team of stars and expects them keep his toothless, skittish, PG-rated war dud afloat. If ever an art preservation campaign again arises in the course of modern warfare, instead of being salvaged as a representation of human good, The Monuments Men would prove itself more useful by being melted down for parts.

Monday, February 3, 2014


A serial rapist/strangler has been terrorizing the women of London and the manhunt focuses on a cagey, alcoholic, unemployed ex-airman (Jon Finch), a perfect candidate for the crime which he so inconveniently happens to be perfectly innocent of committing. For his penultimate film, Alfred Hitchcock returned to his mother country and his favorite plot line, that of the wrong man innocently accused, for a film that leaves little to the imagination but is no less masterful than any of his finest, widely known outings. Manipulating the audience with great facility, Frenzy is a compulsively watchable, darkly funny film featuring several memorable scenes (including an early one where you gradually realize along with a principle character that she will not be able to talk her way out of a jam and a later one where her corpse presents an original and maddening problem for the killer), an enjoyably gruff performance from Finch, and a virtuoso at the top of his game at the end of an unprecedented run.


On a hot summer afternoon on an English country manor in the quiet days before World War II, a precocious girl (Saoirse Ronan followed by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave during later stages of the film) misinterprets incidents taking place between her older sister (Keira Knightley at her most radiant) and the family's gardener (James McAvoy) and, through one callous mistake, forever alters the course of all three of their lives. Atonement is a sumptuously mounted film from Joe Wright who, with screenwriter Christopher Hampton, takes Ian McEwan's remarkable and impeccably structured book and translates it to the screen with as much adeptness and carrying as much, if not more, emotional weight. From the idyllic early passages at the country home, to the famous five minute tracking shot at the beach at Dunkirk, to the gut wrenching final revelation (which should serve as an instructional for twist happy movie makers), Atonement is a triumph on every level.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Doubt is a loving portrait of Catholic grade school that addresses the issue of sex abuse with ambiguity, which I think is the right approach to take. The film opens in 1964 Brooklyn as a local community makes its way to the parish of St. Nicholas one Sunday morning for mass. The newly arrived priest, a progressive from the new wave of Vatican II priest, is giving a sermon on doubt, and how it can be as reassuring as faith. The following day, as the children arrive at the school, we meet Sr. Aloysius, a stern and traditional nun and principal of the school as well as Sr. James, a fresh faced and optimistic member. As the days go on at St. Nicholas, Sr. James sees something odd take place between Fr. Flynn and the sole black child at the school. She reports it to Sr. Aloyisus, who soon accuses the priest of wrongdoing. What follows is a verbal showdown between the two, and the viewer is left to his own devices to decide what really happened. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, Doubt has every detail about Catholic school down to a t, from the stern nun who detests berets and ballpoint pens, to the bright eyed nun who believes she'll change the world, to the friendly priest whom the kids look up to. The script is wonderfully written and carefully devised, not letting the viewer off easy and causing him/her to think. The film also serves as an acting showcase for Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis who shines as the boy's mother in an extended devastating scene. Doubt is a great film that holds reverence for an institution that it knows needs to be changed.

Beauty and the Beast

Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's fairy tale, which tells of a beautiful, kindhearted commoner (Josette Day) trading places with her imprisoned father held in an enchanted castle inhabited by a cursed, brutish creature (Jean Marais), was given a magical, bizarre, and overtly sexual interpretation by Jean Cocteau is his classic film. Following a few pedantic opening passages, which also feature Marais, here playing the cruel Avenant who also seeks Belle's hand, as soon as our heroine arrives at the Beast's fortress the picture takes on an otherworldly quality marked by enigmatic, seemingly inexplicable special effects that capture the imagination and put modern movies to shame.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgement at Nuremberg dramatizes the series of American tribunals following World War II which tried several Nazi officials for war atrocities, and condenses them into a single trial. Socially conscious filmmaker Stanley Kramer's film was one I'd seen awhile back and one which held a firm place in my memory as a biting and powerful work. Watching it again, I found the material overly hypothetical and pretentious with Kramer's constantly zooming courtroom scene cameras creating a distraction. Still, there is much to appreciate on the acting front and from a highly regarded cast standouts include Burt Lancaster as a defendant, Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland as key witnesses, Richard Widmark and Maximilian Schell (excellent, also an Oscar winner for the part) as opposing attorneys, and Spencer Tracy as the presiding judge.

Wish You Were Here

Two sisters (Felicity Price and Teresa Palmer) vacationing in Cambodia, one with her husband (Joel Edgerton), the other with her new boyfriend (Antony Starr) in the country for business, enjoy the beaches and nightlife, in addition to some of the local designer drugs before returning to Sydney without their new acquaintance. As the remaining members of the party become involved with the official inquest, it comes to light that the younger sister slept with her brother-in-law during the stay, adding tension to her older, pregnant sibling's already strained marriage. The Aussie production Wish You Were Here feels like an extended episode of mystery theater and does not always benefit from its often murky flashback structure. It is, however, abetted by its actors and strong characterizations, the family dynamics imposed upon the plot, and its expected though still resounding resolution. I also appreciated how the picture was able to succeed on its own strengths and did not have to rely on stylistics, graphic violence, or excess vulgarities for effect.