Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscar Wrap-Up 2016

This was the year where I had to take a hard look in the mirror and face the fact that I use the Academy Award telecast to fuel my own cynicism and finally recognize the show for the sycophantic, insincere, self-serving, phony baloney stroke fest that everyone always knew it always was. I don't want to harp on Chris Rock's performance as emcee but if I wanted a prolonged guilt trip I would attend mass a couple times in a row. It would be impossible for him not to address the elephant in the room but for it to predominate the entire night without taking it anywhere interesting or constructive is a waste. As for the awards, it was cool to see Mad Max clean up in the technical categories, which wasn't all that much of a given considering competition from Star Wars and The Revenant. Everyone was thrilled Ennio Morricone won for Hateful 8. The movie was trash, the score forgettable, and at this point does he really need a competitive Oscar to validate an extraordinary career. Anyway I was really rooting for John Williams to win his 97th Oscar. Brilliant job at recycling the Imperial Death March. Mark Rylance was probably the biggest upset, winning in a disappointing supporting category. Sorry Sly. Maybe you can score one for Expendables 4. Alicia Vikander, meh. Brie Larson was the weakest of a surprisingly strong Actress lot and Leo. At last. You were so extraordinary in all those green screen scenes and you were probably really cold for like twenty minutes a day for a three month shoot. Plus thanks for the advice. I will carry the torch and fight the good fight against the "politics of greed" while you jet set with supermodels and get paid 20 million dollars to do commercials. Soldier on mate! Inarritu went to impressive places for his second straight directing award but how do you not give that one to George Miller. Finally, although its another social justice honoree for Best Picture, Spotlight was an excellent form of near defunct filmmaking and it was nice cherry on the top of a soul sucking Oscar sundae. See you next year folks.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Cartel Land

A militia man and self-proclaimed cartel buster patrols the border near his Arizona home and relays his experiences while, 1,000 miles in Michooacan, Mexico, a citizens' defense unit headed by a charismatic doctor start to go town to town, clearing out the government enabled syndicate thugs who have plagued their way of life. Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land profiles two complex individuals enmeshed in a convoluted situation, using immediate footage and top shelf cinematography to present their bleak scenarios (with the expected bleak or non resolutions), though the filmmakers occasionally makes convoluted choices as to how either subject is presented.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red

With each title taken from the colors of the French flag and stories very broadly drawn from the motto  "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" (much similar to the way he drew up The Decalogue), Krysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy is brilliantly conceived, expertly committed, and lovingly acted by several generations of gifted international actors. Here's a brief word on each film:

Blue (1993)
The first entry is a unique take on grief as a widow marches to her own beat following her renowned classical musician husband's death. Juliette Binoche is quite wonderful in the lead, the direction is spot on, and great use of music is employed (especially during jarring fadeouts in key moments) although the film does get a little heavy in the finale
*** 1/2 out of ****

White (1994)
The second film in the series is lighter, and a wry, clever little story at that involving a jilted Pole's complex revenge scheme against his beautiful Parisian ex-wife. Zbigniew Zamachowski Julie Delpy turn in fine work as the couple, Janusz Gajos is great in support as a sympathetic entrepreneur, and the exterior photography of the Polish countryside is exceptional.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Red (1994)
Red is the finest of the lot, detailing the growing friendship between a model and an elderly voyeuristic neighbor, uses backhanded story weaving and a keen eye and is told with the superb services of Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
**** out of ****

Friday, February 26, 2016


I attempted to rewatch Scarface, the rise and fall of Castro freed Cuban prisoner, emigre, and eventual Miami drug lord Tony Montana,  without considering its sickening cultural influences and detriment to film and audience tastes, enoying it a little more for awhile before reverting to my initial assessment. Brian De Palma's Oliver Stone Penned remake of Howard Hawks' gangster classic is overlong by about half, extremely preachy and, for a movie that celebrates excess more than any other,  is downright boring in stretches. Pacino's scree gnawing performance is really the reason to see it, but attempts to humanize his character in the end are a mistake, the film's denouement is confusing and muddled, the infamous finale is ill advised and artless. Robert Loggia and Steven Bauer are strong in support and you couldn't ask for two more irritating female performances in Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
** out of ****

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Raise the Red Lantern

A literate young woman, whose family has fallen on tough times, becomes a concubine to a rich nobleman and must contend with his other mistresses while learning the ropes at his cloistered estate. Yimou Zhang's Raise the Red Lantern slowly grows on you, gradually involving you in its unique story with its sumptuous visuals, a remarkable performance from Li as an off-putting though comprehensible character, and a haunting, perfectly realized climax.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Day of the Locust

A Hollywood art designer (William Atherton) finds his advances turned away from an aspiring, no talent actress (Karen Black) who is also contending with an ineffectual accountant (Donald Sutherland) and her dying, former vaudeville entertainer father (Burgess Meredith). The Day of the Locust makes a good companion to Nathanael West's ruthless Hollywood sendup but perhaps doesn't stand on its own, although there are some nice touches in Waldo Salt's script and a similar, spectacularly terrifying finale. Atherton and Sutherland are pretty strong, Meredith is excellent, and Black is irritating by device. The film footage clips and drawings are especially cool.
*** out of ****

Monday, February 22, 2016

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Built around testimonials of several former members, Going Clear tells the history and practices of Scientology, beginning with its origins with grandiose creator and science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard up until present scandals large and small and not discluding the church's ultimately successful battle with the IRS to gain tax-exempt religious status. Going Clear is another excellent entry from Alex Gibney who again puts on a basic clinic of how a documentary should be assembling, here amassing a bizarre even frightening film that helps bring clarity to a pseudo-religion and understand just how its followers can maintain such a loyal mindset amidst all the madness.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mississippi Grind

A competent but hard-lucked gambling junkie (Ben Mendelson) meets a charming stranger (Ryan Reynolds) at an Iowa poker table and finds his fortune immediately reversing. Developing an immediate friendship, the two take to the road hitting every high and low end game along the muddy Mississippi en route to a $25,000 buy-in in New Orleans. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Mississippi Grind is an intelligently written character study that doesn't spoon feed its audiences and allows them to think without spelling everything out. The two stars have great chemistry, Ben Mendelson's performance is quite excellent, and Reynolds finds a tailor made role and, surprisingly, follows through nicely. Further, great southern locations add to the film's flavor and Sienna Miller and Analeigh Tipton are also strong, playing prostitutes and love interests. A film of this rare quality makes you realize that in the deluge of films being processed today, some excellent are slipping by unnoticed On Demand while big budget dreck continues to plague our theaters.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bob le Flambeur

An aged noble gambling junkie (Roger Duchesne) assembles a motley team of underworld sorts to rob a casino and sees it through even as the police start to catch on. You can palpably feel the Hollywood noirish influences on Jeanne-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) but you can also discern its impact, both the immediate one concerning style and substance on the French New Wave and also in the longer run on buddy crime pictures, Ocean's 11 coming foremost to mind. And though, much of Melville's film lies before it and in its wake, it is its own, creating a nostalgic, laconic feel, wonderfully incorporating irony, and offering a pious Duchesne in a very likable lead performance. Also, the finale is brilliant.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, February 19, 2016

The President's Analyst

A renowned psychiatrist (James Coburn) is tapped to treat the leader of the free world but is made a target by government agents and a victim of extreme paranoia as soon his duties have been completed. The President's Analyst is an odd, trippy satire. Marred by its psychadelia, it has unflatteringly dated and Coburn gives a performance that is equally broad and strange. Some humorous moments do arise, particularly with a suburban New Jersey family with whom Coburn makes his escape.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Mosquito Coast

A brilliant, principled, irascible and uncompromising inventor relocates his browbeaten family from their New England home to the coastal swamps of Honduras where he plans to lead his own empire which will be based primarily on a gargantuan ice generator of his own creation. Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast is tremendously, almost slavishly faithful to Paul Theroux's book (which was adapted by Paul Schrader) but tries to cram in way too much in under two hours (glossing over much in the process), loses momentum, and really drags its heals following the Act 2 climax. Ford is excellent in one of his finest roles, fully embodying his complex, larger than life character, and Helen Mirren and River Phoenix are great per usual.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Day the Series Stopped

Ryan Fleck's The Day the Series Stopped, an entry in the ever expanding and exponentially uninteresting 30 for 30 series, is a disappointing, completely vague look back how game 3 of the 1989 World Series (fought between the A's and Giants, Bay Area ball clubs) was thunderously disrupted and brought to a crashing halt. With great access to footage the film never amounts to much and only succeeds in replicating the disorientation and confusion that must have been experienced during the catastrophe.
** out of ****

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Top Five

A sellout comic actor (Chris Rock), star of a big budget action series where he fights crime in a bear suit and currently shooting a reality television show which follows preparations for his wedding, wants to be taken seriously for his next project and must examine his career and life when he is profiled by a writer (Rosario Dawson) from the New York Times. Top Five is broad, lazy, and largely unfunny satire, written and directed by Rock, who is still appealing in the lead. The beautiful Dawson comes off as incredibly irritating.
** out of ****

Monday, February 15, 2016

Son of Saul

A Hungarian Jew Saul (Geza Rohrig) labors in a Sonderkommando unit in Auschwitz, a work detail which cleans and disposes the remnants of the gas chamber, and which also knows they will be employed only a short time before meeting the same fate. One day, following a gassing, a child lays gasping for air (only the second case known according to the doctor) and Saul soon realizes that it is his illegitimate son whom he now must so desperately procure a ritual burial. Shot in extreme closeup (wahhh!---ok bad joke) for more or less the entire movie with background images staying mostly out of focus, Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul is a disorienting, brutal, and unrelenting film that wants to create a 'you are there' experience of the Holocaust which begs the question: why now do we need first person films of the Holocaust? This isn't a knock at the filmmaking, acting, or cinematography, all of which truly are first rate, and the film seems to be made out of genuine ire, but after so many films (not to mention works in other mediums), I think it goes beyond "lest we never forget" or "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" to those who can not come to terms with the past and forgive are doomed never to heal.
*** out of ****

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts Program (Live Action)

Stutterer, one of this year's Live Action Short nominees
West Bank religious tensions. Ethnic Cleansing. Child endangerment and kidnapping. Communication barriers. Butchering a stillborn baby to save the mother's life. All part of the lighthearted frolic that is the Oscar Nominated Live Action S horts. The program seems somehow even less inspiring and more pandering this year, as if it is all to apparent to the filmmakers that not creativity but the presentation of timely, horrid shit will secure a nomination. That being said there was some good stuff on hand. Here's a brief rundown:

Ave Maria
Farcical, amusing comedy shows a Jewish family involved in a car accident in Arab town in Palestine and seeking assistance from some cloistered nuns.
*** out of ****

Overwrought but well filmed piece shows Albanian man dolefully reflecting on a childhood friendship during the Kosovo war.
*** out of ****

Everything Will Be Okay
A German father facing loss of custody picks up his daughter and heads to the toy store and the fair before having emergency passports forged and attempting to catch a flight to Manila. This was the first short that really got to me. Its well filmed, well acted, but what's the point (besides the lengths a father will go to blah blah blah)?
** out of ****

An intellectual logophile mute anguishes over meeting the girl he has been conversing with online. My favorite of the lot, employing wit, imagination, and earned empathy. 
**** out of ****

Day One
Ok let's see: a rookie female translator in Afghanistan is forced to deliver a thought to be stillborn from the mother's wound (the husband of whom is a just detained bombmaker) by herself in order to preserve Islam custom. Ugh. 
** out ****

Ok folks that wraps it up. After making it out of the shorts program alive, you can find me on the couch the next couple of days popping Xanax, drinking Maker's Mark, and watching the Sound of Music to recover.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Inspired by the bestselling self-help manual, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) are seven irreverent shorts from Woody Allen, some of which are laugh out loud funny, others not (most the ones that feature Woody), and some are just out there. The best segments involve John Carradine as a mad sex researcher, Lou Jacobi as a middle aged cross dresser, Gene Wilder as a doctor who loses everything after falling in love with a sheep, and the now famous imagining of the inner workings of the male body during intercourse.
*** out of ****

Friday, February 12, 2016

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

Based on a book by Geoffrey C. Ward, an account of the life of Jack Johnson, the brazen pugilist who, while always living life on his own terms, became the first black Heavyweight Champion inspiring ire and a slew of great white hope contenders. It has always been true of Ken Burns' films that they are well researched, impeccably presented with great writing, narration, cinematography, and footage although with his later films it has also become a standard for them to incorporate boring drones who compound belabored, obvious points with little wit and style, often to the film's detriment. With Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, all of this applies with Burns presenting a fascinating subject who is so bombastic, impressive, and impossible to peg down.
*** out of ****

Thursday, February 11, 2016


In late 1793 Georges Danton (Gerard Depardieu) returns to Paris to discover his once helmed Committee of Public Safety has begun issuing death sentences by guillotine en masse at the hand of his successor and once friend Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak). Taking on the committee with his band of loyal supporters, they soon find themselves jailed, on trial, and facing that quite decisive blade. Andrzej Wajda's Danton is fast paced, intelligent, historical retelling boasting brilliant performances from Depardieu and Pszoniak not to mention its brutal, tragic finale.
**** out of ****

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


A severely psychologically damaged schizophrenic stable boy (Peter Firth) is placed under the observation of a psychiatrist (Richard Burton) who tries to determine the root of his behavior after he blinds several horses. Adapted for the screen from his own stage play, Peter Shaffer's Equus contains powerful and vivid material and imagery which comes off as somewhat clunky and is not opened up all that well for the screen by director Sidney Lumet. Burton and Firth are both excellent and Harry Andrews and a great supporting role as the seething, disbelieving stable master.
** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

A day in the life of a major studio head (Josh Brolin) circa 1950 as he rescues one of his starlets from smut peddlers, fends off twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton), preserves the honor of another actress (Scarlet Johansson), deals with a temperamental director (Ralph Fiennes) and a B Western star (Alden Ehrenreich) under-qualified for his current parlor drama all the while mulling over a lucrative job offer from Lockheed and trying to retrieve his A-list megastar (George Clooney), kidnapped for ransom by commie writers right off the set of his big budget Roman epic. Subversive Coenesque elements are on hand for Hail Caesar as are many funny moments in this farce from the prolific brothers but this impressive studio system tour doesn't really tie its story or greater themes together (which is kind of let on by its many A list celebrity cameos cast---Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill also appear for some reason). Clooney  again amusingly plays the fool, Brolin makes a fine anchor for the picture, Fiennes is a hoot and, a little ironically, virtual unknown Ehrenreich is the standout in this sea of celebs.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, February 8, 2016

The 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts Program (Animated)

cel from Prologue
This year's animated short program, always a fun little excursion despite the quality of its content, runs the gamut from baffling, unspectacular, intricate,  amiable, and finally extraordinary (along with four additional non-nominated films which are likewise a mixed bag). Here's a brief rundown of each of the nine shorts shown in the program:
Sanjay's Super Team
Disney flick tolded in bulgy eyed Pixar style uses someimpressive animation to tell a story of father/son generational disconnect.
*** out of ****

World of Tomorrow
High concept story, simplistic, crude, techno-mation about a young girl being visited by her future consciousness.
** out of ****

Bear Story
complex, workmanlike animation about a city bear being taken from his family.
*** 1/2 out of ****

We Can't Live Without Cosmos
offbeat, amusing friendship tale and Right Stuff riff.
*** out of ****

brilliant, violent pencil drawn tale of four warriors fighting The Spartan War. My favorite of the lot. (it was also pretty cool seeing the PSA asking children to be removed from the audience)
*** 1/2 out of ****


If I was God
So so Canadian short about a kid restoring a frog back to life on dissection day
** 1/2 out of ****

The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse
Gorgeous, naturalistic animation. Probably the most accomplished in the series.
*** 1/2 out of ****

The Loneliest Stoplight
Somewhat uninspired short features Patton Oswalt.
*** out of ****

Catch It
Amusing short, the type of thing that would usually precede a kiddie feature.
*** out of ****

Sunday, February 7, 2016

45 Years

Back home from her morning walk in the foggy English countryside, a retired school teacher (Charlotte Rampling) greets the postman who relays a letter for her husband (Tom Courtenay) stating that the body his former lover has been retrieved in the Swiss Alps some five decades after her death. Now, as the happily married couple prepares for an anniversary celebration, details of that ancient tryst seep into their lives and quickly poison the well. 45 Years, which director Andrew Haigh drew on a David Constantine short story, is subtle, nuanced, and very particular filmmaking, the type that calls for revisitation upon which it would assumedly reveal more of itself. Rampling turns in a brilliant, expressive performance and Courtenay is her equal playing a decent man doing a poor job of hiding his affection for a dead woman.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Virgin Spring

A beautiful and pious maiden leaves her country home making her way through the woods to church when she is accosted and murdered by three vile brothers, who happen to find themselves at their victim's home and subject to her kin's mercy. Ingmar Bergman's adaptation of a 13th century folk ballad (which has been reworked several times as horror fodder that totally misses the point) is haunting, violent, and brooding, filmed with pristine black and white photography with many memorable sequences, the finest being its striking ending.
**** out of ****

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mon Oncle

While staying at his sister's post-modernistic suburban home, Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) takes on all the pointless gadgetry and lifeless architecture while mentoring his nephew. Where Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday was breezy and affable this much admired follow-up is a meandering, tiresome, overlong obvious satire with few laughs but many good sight gags. The set design and photography are impeccable.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Sergio Leone's epic spaghetti western, which details the uneasy alliances formed by the eponymous characters (played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach) as search the unforgiving territories in search of Confederate gold, has been heralded as THE definitive western and makes many top 10 all time lists. Revisiting it again I was taken by the vacant landscapes, Ennio Morricone's inimitable score, Leone's brash direction, and the ending of the unrivaled final sequence. Clint's image was cemented here in this film, Van Cleef is an impeccable baddie, and Wallach's performance (forgetting how most of the film really centers on him) is kind of remarkable. Only complaint: for such a lengthy picture, the penultimate bridge detonation sequence really does slow things down.
**** out of ****

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


A superstitious widow (Cher) living in Brooklyn with her parents (Olympia Dukasis, Vincent Gardenia) is about to remarry a baker (Danny Aiello) when she falls for his raving younger brother (Nicolas Cage). Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is beloved by many despite being schmaltzy, stereotypical, and awkward (which is probably a large part of its appeal). Cher and Dukakis are excellent and Cage, Gardenia, and Aiello are amusing in support.
** ½ out of ****

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The One I Love

A couple (Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss) rents an isolated cottage for the weekend in hopes to regroup their marriage and find ideal and subversive alternate versions of each other inhabiting their getaway residences. The One I Love stretches its Twilight Zone premise (the show is even referenced in the movie) and absolutely falls apart towards end when it turns darks and grows confusing and silly. Duplass and Moss are likable and a few laughs along the way help.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, February 1, 2016

John Wick

A retired hitman (Keanu Reeves) mourning the loss of his wife receives a prearranged gift from her in the form of a puppy to act as a surrogate companion. Soon some punks, and kin to a Russian mob syndicate follow him home, rob him, and kill the poor defenseless creature. Obviously, the assassin forced out of retirement and forced to scorch the earth of these foul parasites. Setting aside Reeves' stoic appeal here, John Wick is brainless, senseless violence made for the Call of Duty crowd, in a completely routine revenge script that speaks to the insanity of dog nation, here justifying scores of bullet strewn bodies as retaliation for the death of one pup.
** out of ****