Sunday, May 7, 2017

Gentleman's Agreement

A California journalist (Gregory Peck) heads to New York to write for a liberal digest and labors over how to approach his new assignment in exposing anti-Semitism in many variants in society until it hits him: attack it like every one of his acclaimed exposés, by getting down to the ground level, and feign being Jewish himself. Age shows on this Elia Kazan Best Picture Oscar winner and it grows tiresome and overly preachy with a bland Peck at his most rigid. The screenplay however is utterly thorough and explores its subject through many angles and lenses.
** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The 39 Steps

Shots ring out in a London Vaudevillian theater, an attempt to create a distraction by a female agent who finds herself in the flat of one the show’s attendees (Robert Donat). Now, he is thrust into the serpentine plot that takes him to the Scottish Mores where he is both pursuing and pursued by the deadly, clandestine eponymous spy ring. Slyly conceived and brilliantly realized, The 39 Steps is a supreme entertainment that anticipated not just some of Alfred Hitchcock's future work but also inspired many successful, subsequent thrillers.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

20th Century Women

A product of the Depression Era, an older mother and single parent (Annette Bening) attempts to understand her punk influenced adolescent son (Lucas Jade Zumann) who seeks guidance from a sickly artistic tenant (Greta Gerwig), an aloof maintenance man (Billy Crudup), and an advanced peer (Elle Fanning) in 1979 Santa Barbara. Phony, magniloquent Mike Mills production, who took nearly the exact same approach with Beginners (ostensibly depicting his father, here his mother), is the kind of material with appeal solely for West Coast liberals and middle-aged Gen-Xers. Bening delivers a nice performance and helps buoy the film along with Gerwig and Zumann. Sean Porter's photography helps too.
** out of ****

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rules Don't Apply

One of the many starlets (Lily Collins) on Howard Hughes's payroll lives by the stringent rules accorded by the aging, shadowy, and eccentric billionaire (Warren Beatty), which includes not dating your assigned driver and personal spy, in her case a straight-edged, business driven Christian (Alden Ehrenreich). Beatty's self-aggrandizing, first directorial effort in almost twenty years is a strange, tonally shifting, and shamefully bad screwball comedy that only conjures up memories of Scorsese's The Aviator, a vastly superior Hughes picture. Only Ehrenreich keeps the picture afloat.
* out of ****

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Patriots Day

Fresh off suspension and nursing a bum knee, a police sergeant (Mark Wahlberg) somehow manages to be present at every turn of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the ensuing five day highly coordinated search for the treacherous, radicalized suspects. Overcooked Boston elements, too many liberal platitudes and speeches, and an epilogue that just will not end mar Peter Berg's latest Wahlberg starring tragic recent news rehashing. Pretty much what you'd expect except the manhunt sequences are surprisingly thrilling and the saga is surgically recreated and aided by true life surveillance footage.
** 1/2 out ****

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Anne of the Thousand Days

With Katharine of Aragon past her child bearing years and failing to produce a male heir, Henry VIII (Richard Burton) sets his sights on the beautiful young Anne Boleyn who successfully manipulates him to seek divorce, thus breaking with the Catholic Church while warring with Spain. She proves no match, however, to his uncontrollable jealousy and madness and the wiles of his brilliant, unscrupulous adviser Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos) when the marriage proves just as fruitless as the first. Sometimes intriguing but mostly forgettable entry of the oft-filmed story which has had a resurgence lately (i'd recommend Wolf Hall for a better treatment) and pales in comparison to other castle intrigues of the era (Lion in Winter, A Man for All Seasons). Burton is strong but probably miscast and Bujold makes a lifeless Boleyn.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Man Called Ove

A recently widowed curmudgeonous engineer (Rolf Lassgard), made redundant by technology, finds himself lording over his condo association and continually failing at taking his own life until he is given purpose by the newly arrived kindly and forthright next door neighbors. Soupy Swedish export is easy, cliched, PC, tear jerking material, the cinematic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, though Lassgard is excellent and the movie is amusing in bits and admittedly hard to dislike.
** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Learning Tree

A principled black teen in 1920s rural Kansas looks forward to leaving his close-minded community, while savoring its life lessons and positives aspects, while witnessing a headstrong peer being driven towards a life of crime and poverty. In adapting his own autobiographical novel, Gordon Parks was involved in just about every aspect of the film's creation, including producing, writing, directing, and scoring the music while at the same time becoming the first black director of a major studio picture. That being said, The Learning Tree is an involving message movie with familiar elements that goes its own route, sometimes explicitly, which must have been eye-opening in its era. A genuine cast helps too.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Christine

A high-strung TV newswoman (Rebecca Hall) prone to depression finds herself butting heads with the station manager (Tracy Letts) over the lack of exploitative angles in her stories and rejected by the lead anchor (Michael C. Hall) before sending shockwaves across the country in a live, desperate act. Christine (not to be confused with the Stephen King killer car movie) manages to make intelligent observations about mental illness, sexism, and careerism on top of the more obvious point of news sensationalism while leading towards a shocking denouement that is actually enhanced by beforehand knowledge of the story. Rebecca Hall's performance seems awkward initially but eventually clicks, generating empathy, and she is given fine support by Letts, Michael C. Hall (no relation), J. Smith-Cameron playing her mom, and Maria Dizzia as a concerned coworker. An unemphasized 70s soundtrack also contributes nicely.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War

Prominent Massachusetts Methodists Waitstill and Martha Sharp risk their lives and ultimately sacrifice their marriage and much of their own savings in order to personally assist the exodus of hundreds of refugees as Hitler increases his territorial holdings in Greater Europe. Directed by Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps' War is a cheaply made, limited telling of an intense story of selfless heroism, which opts mostly for testimonials and almost entirely forgoes any opportunities the story offers for intrigue.
** out of ****

Monday, April 17, 2017

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Against orders, Kirk and his crew smuggle the Enterprise away from headquarters in order to retrieve Spock's corpse from Planet Genesis as the presumed dead doctor's consciousness seems to have taken over Bones. Meanwhile, with the Klingons closing in, Kirk's son leads a separate expedition exploring the rapidly evolving characteristics of the targeted planet. Leonard Nimoy directed this supremely uninspired installment, which has been credited by some for keeping with the spirit of the series and for its admittedly strong special effects, though the movie is awfully uneventful, cheesy, and sluggish.
** out of ****

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Prince of Egypt

All but forgotten recent Disney retelling of the Exodus story and the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt is a straightforward presentation with surprisingly strong animation and a fine cast of voice actors led by Val Kilmer as Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses, though the picture is dogged by a lacking Stephen Schwartz soundtrack that heavily and humorously knocks off Les Mis.
*** out of ****

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Baraka

An erupting volcano, Manhattan traffic, Eastern temples, sites of war atrocities, an African tribal ritual and many more events ranging from mundane to the extraordinary make up Ron Fricke's free flowing, non narrative documentary. Consisting of the highest visual quality--you could even mistake it for an episode of Planet Earth, which is saying something considering it was shot over 25 years ago on 70mm--Baraka boasts wondrous and even breathtaking imagery but is awfully broad and incohesive.
*** out of ****

Friday, April 14, 2017

Waking Life

7/17/10 Waking Life is about a young man caught in a series of dreams who meets several people and listens to their philosophies on life while he formulates his own opinions. Director Richard Linklater, who may be the most innovative and experimental director working today, created this marvel of a movie by filming it with a digital camera and having dozens of writers animate the film while adding their own trippy spins. This is a thinking person's movie and is not for everyone. However, it is a movie that can be watch casually or intensely, and can be revisited many times. Waking Life is a little gem of a movie that each person should at least tempt to watch. Look for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who make a welcome reprise of their characters from Before Sunrise.
***1/2 out of ****

Magnolia

The lives of ten quasi related Los Angeleans, most with some connection to a long running children's quiz show, are put through the emotional ringer on a long, rainy day as they face personal and past revelations that reach a literal biblical proportion. Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliantly directed, captivating, and draining pastiche is remarkably only barely marred by its extreme length and aptitude for pretentiousness and self-indulgence. While some of the actors are hard to stomach (Juliane Moore, Melora Walters), most are tremendous including Philip Baker Hall, Melinda Dillon, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a fierce, highly charged, career-topping turn as a misogynistic self-help sex guru.
**** out of ****

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Lady Vanishes

After being snowed in at a remote Eastern European inn, almost all the members of a passenger train have a motive for concealing their awareness of the existence of a sweet little old lady who seemingly vanished into thin air while a recent acquaintance (Margaret Lockwood) and a cynical musician (Michael Redgrave) suspect a conspiracy and attempt to rally a search party. Sharp and witty, early pre-Hollywood Hitchcock success is a crisply made mystery and veritable entertainment. Lockwood and Redgrave shine in the leads and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne stand out as nitwit, cricket obsessed travelling companions.
**** out of ****

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Double Life

An aged and renowned stage actor (Ronald Colman) inevitably adopts the personality traits of the roles he takes on. As he throws himself into the role of Othello, his jealousy towards his ex-wife and costar is inflamed. With a screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, George Cukor's A Double Life is a well directed piece, even if the story is more than a little transparent and the dialogue is stiff as this character study migrates from an elegant New York theater piece to a tragic noir. Colman delivers a memorable, Oscar winning performance.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Swept Away... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August

A malicious, selfish upper-class woman (Mariangela Melato) mistreats and verbally abuses the unrefined, lower born deckhand (Giancarlo Giannini)aboard her husband’s sailboat during a Mediterranean voyage and finds the tables being turned when the two are stranded on a deserted island and she must rely on, and is even drawn to, his self-reliance and macho dominance. Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away is an obvious but nevertheless intriguing class warfare/battle of the sexes allegory which boasts great direction, beautiful locations, and excellent central performances.

*** ½ out of ****

Monday, April 10, 2017

Orphans of the Storm

During Louis XVI's tyrannical reign, a high-born woman is forced to give up her daughter, the result of a relationship with a commoner. Left to freeze on the steps of Notre Dame, she is rescued by a starving peasant who rethinks his decision to abandon his own child and raises the two as inseparable sisters (played by Dorothy and Lillian Gish) who are indeed separated during the turmoil of the Revolution. Despite its extreme length, D.W. Griffith once more advanced movie storytelling techniques with Orphans of the Storm. The Gish sisters are sublimely emotive and the rollicking finale and historical recreations are superb.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mighty Aphrodite

A Greek chorus warns of danger and tragedy lying ahead when a sportswriter (Woody Allen), unhappily married to a prospective art curator (Helena Bonham Carter), goes looking for the mother (Mira Sorvino) of their gifted adopted son and receives a genuine shock when he discovers her chosen line of work. Allen's most vulgar (though very sincere) film incorporates the usual elements of his work, and features a genuine, shrill, coarse and ultimately poignant, Oscar winning performance from Sorvino. The chorus, as led by F. Murray Abraham, is hysterically funny.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Predator

A commando (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his highly skilled Special Ops team coordinates with the CIA on a sketchy rescue mission in a Central American jungle and finds themselves targeted by an otherworldly, extrasensory killing machine. Predator is campy fun and generally well made by director John McTiernan but the storyline, which essentially amounts to Alien in the Jungle, is awfully scant, the effects are cheesy, and the final protracted showdown is unsatisfying.
** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Two of Us

During the German Occupation, the Jewish parents of an exuberant juvenile (Alain Cohen) determine it would be safer for all involved if he were to live in the country under an assumed name where a bond quickly develops with the kind and curmudgeonly, anti-semitic elderly shelterer (Michel Simon). Claude Berri's autobiographical ode to his wartime protectors is moving and humorous, with a great performance from Simon and a natural one from Cohen, and tells a story, the likes of which would never even be dreamt of being attempted in today's PC climate.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Belfast, Maine

An intimate, microscopic look at the members of the blue collar seaside community which includes (among many others) operations at the cannery, church services, court proceedings, a trapper, play rehearsals, an English literature class, lobster fisherman, social services and nursing home visits, and the premier of a Stephen King movie. Frederick Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine, a committed profile caught with an incredibly discerning eye capturing the minutiae of a depressed town, for myself a great introduction to an acclaimed documentarian and will make you wonder just how much more is going on in the shadows and corridors of your seemingly dull community.
*** ½ out of ****

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Gaslight

A fraught music student (Ingrid Bergman), still distraught at the murder by strangulation of her famed and beautiful concert hall singing aunt, takes up with her charming and unsavory conservatory instructor (Charles Boyer) as the couple moves back into the murder house where he deftly and gradually makes her believe she is going insane. George Cukor’s Gaslight is timeworn and rife for parody, though still retaining many superb qualities including splendid sets and crisp cinematography. Bergman is beautiful and confused as ever, Boyer is amusing as a manipulative worm, and Angela Lansbury stands out as a cockney maid in her first ever screen appearance.
*** out of ****

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Westworld

For $1,000 a day, the Delos Corporation's Disneyland modeled, adult geared theme park offers state of the art cyborgs, capable of passing the Turing Test, to satisfy your basest desires. Of the three parks, two city slickers (James Brolin and Richard Benjamin) elect to visit Westernworld (forgoing Romanworld and Medievalworld) when a glitch in the system causes the inhabitants to revolt and the men find themselves targeted by a relentless, advanced modeled gunslinger (Yul Brynner). Michael Chrichton's Westworld is shockingly simple, especially when compared to the overplotted, seemingly contradictory, and occasionally fascinating HBO series but benefits from its gritty, low budget look compared to the sleekness of its successor. Brynner is perfectly cast.
** 1/2 out of ****

Monday, April 3, 2017

No No: A Dockumentary

After dropping acid on a California road trip in June 1970 and forgetting he had to pitch the next day, Pittsburgh Pirates hurler Dock Ellis threw a no hitter against the San Diego Padres while under the influence of LSD. While this sports story that has achieved mythic proportions, what is even more interesting is Ellis' ubringing, his wild and erratic personality, the horrifying lows his post baseball career would take due to drug and alcohol addiction, and the redemption he would seek before his death in 2008. No No is an unexpectedly powerful story, made with great footage and guests, that at first treats its subject like a lark and absolutely blindsides you with its trajectory. My only complaint is that the documentary could have been more structured with its dating.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Fastball

A history of the pitch, including scientific breakdowns to determine who through the fastest and interviews with some of the greatest living hurlers of all time. Excellent baseball doc is sure to thrill fans while others may grow restless. Makes great use of footage and interviews, while Kevin Costner provides worthy narration. Only complaint is that it could have been more inclusive with some big names (Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson come foremost to mind) seem to be conspicuously absent.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Zero Days

When a self-sufficient, irreversible, impossibly advanced malware (dubbed Stuxnet from key pieces of its code) was determined as the cause of sabotage at an Iranian Nuclear Plant in 2010, it was traced back as the product of a joint partnership between the U.S. and the Israelis, the latter of whom's overeagerness to thwart their enemy would lead to a global unleashing of the deadly cyber virus. As told by tight lipped government officials and an unidentified source from within the NSA, Zero Days is yet another profound examination from Alex Gibney, here playing like a solid thriller, building slowly than terrifyingly, while delivering its concise message.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, March 31, 2017

Adaptation.

During production of Being John Malkovich, overanxious screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) begins his latest undertaking, a big screen adaptation of Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) decidedly small scale and narratively bereft The Orchid Thief ostensibly about a magnetic Florida flower poacher (Chris Cooper), which blocks his creative process and becomes a major source of consternation. Meanwhile, his twin brother Donald (also Cage), a novice writer, tries his hand at the trade and effortlessly produces a moronic and completely bankable thriller. Kaufman’s Spike Jonze directed Adaptation. is a brilliant self-conscious examination, self-referential a hundred times over, that manages to be warm, surrealistic, cynical, funny, and sad all at once. Cage gives the finest performance of his career in creating two distinct, humanized characters and Streep, especially Cooper, and Bryan Cox in a key walk on role are all tremendous.
**** out of ****

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

During the confusion and chaos surrounding the close of the Vietnam War, a dubious crackpot bureaucrat (John Goodman) forges ahead with his lifelong plan of exploring the mythic uncharted territory known as Skull Island. Along with a military squadron led by an embittered commander (Samuel L. Jackson), a noted mercenary tracker (Tom Hiddleston), and a war photographer (Brie Larson), they are hostility confronted by a stories high, near invincible primate who may be their only hope against the other gargantuan creatures inhabiting the territory. Kong: Skull Island is a dumb, fun treatment that blends 50s monster movies with a tepid combat story and boasts a solid cast plus sometimes impressive, other times uninspired modern age special effects.
*** out of ****

Ingmar Bergman's Silence of God Trilogy

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)
 A young woman (Harriet Andersson), just released from the hospital following treatment for schizophrenia, retreats to a remote island and frolics with her bookish brother (Lars Passgard) while her sullen husband (Max von Sydow) attempts to repair their marriage and she learns the devastating news that her author father (Gunnar Bjornstrand) has been exploiting her sickness for his work. Immaculately shot by Bergman's longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Through a Glass Darkly is cerebral, shocking, and sorrowful with a possessed, otherworldly performance from Andersson.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Winter Light (1963)
A Lutheran minister (Bjornstrand) practices mass without feeling, offers his own feelings of helplessness to a suicidal man (von Sydow) who reaches out to him, and treats his loving mistress (Gunnel Lindblom) with nothing but disdain as the only true believer in his clergy is the hunchback Sexton. Striking, succinct, penetrating, and humorless, Bjornstrand's performance and Lindblom breaking the fourth wall during the letter reading scene stand atop an austere Winter Light.
*** out of ****

The Silence (1963)
A sensual woman (Lindblom) and her child stop for a layover in a bizarre, unnamed and virtually inaudible European town when her cold and distant sister (Ingrid Thulin) takes ill during a journey by train. Oblique, extremely minimalist, and starkly filmed The Silence is ultimately a shocking and viscerally moving experience.
*** out of ****

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Don't Drink the Water (1969 and 1994)

While on a European vacation during the height of the Cold War, a grouchy New Jersey caterer (originally starring Jackie Gleason, then Woody Allen), his overbearing wife (Estelle Parsons, Julie Kavner), and daughter are trapped behind the Iron Curtain, accused of espionage, and forced to hideout in a U.S. embassy run by a feckless ambassador (Ted Bessell, Michael J. Fox) while targeted by an overzealous party member. Allen's play, first filmed in 1969, is hilarious fun with Gleason's mugging, Parson's ditziness, and one of the funniest collections of Woody's one-liners until it peters out towards the end. Unsatisfied with the results, Allen directed and starred in a made for TV remake which contained unnecessary rewrites and a lackluster cast which doesn't match up to the original.
1969 version: *** out of ****
1994 version: ** out of ****

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

Passing along legends to the village peasants, as told to him by his slowly fading mother, of his noble samurai father and his demise at the hands of his malevolent, immortal grandfather (an incident which also resulted in the loss of his own eye), a young boy is whisked away to an icy netherworld where he is stalked by the old man’s presence once more and protected by a surly monkey and an absentminded beetle. The Overamericanized Kubo and the Two Strings goes down a Disneyfied path just when you think its veering toward a different, darker direction although the animation is sharp, the story resonant, and boasts some great action sequences.
*** out of ****

Monday, March 27, 2017

Seven Beauties

A self-styled playboy gangster (Giancarlo Giannini) with his own code of honor accidentally kills his sister’s pimp and finds himself captured by the Germans and interned in a concentration camp where he is put to the test of human extremes, whether it is sacrificing a friend, selecting men to die in his stead, or seducing the sadistic bullish prison warden. Lina Wertmuller’s acclaimed Seven Beauties is a bawdy and broad European style comedy and harrowing war picture that changes tones often but succeeds  thanks to great direction (Wertmuller became the first woman in Oscar history nomintated for Best Director) and Giannini's confident, emotive performance.

*** ½ out of ****

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Reversal of Fortune

The ghostly voice of millionaire debutante Sunny Von Bulow (Glenn Close) informs of her two overdoses, spaced a year apart, the second resulting in a permanent vegetative state as the result of an insulin injection and her crafty, urbane husband Claus (Jeremy) being convicted of attempted murder and seeking that conviction overturned by brilliant legal mind Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) and his team of student attorneys. Irons is the whole show in a sly, virtuoso performance and Close provides a fine supporting turn and excellent narration in what could have been a gimmicky implementation. The legal scenes however, though thorough and informative, are not nearly as riveting.
*** out of ****

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sense and Sensibility

Three sisters of the Dashwood family, introverted Elinor (Emma Thompson), outward and outspoken Marianne (Kate Winslet), and the precocious juvenile Margaret, along with their mother are dispossessed of their family's estate when it passes to their brother upon their father's death, but not before the eldest falls for her charming and reserved brother-in-law. Taken in by obnoxious landlords, Marianne falls for a dashing, disingenuous gentleman and the women acquaint a compassionate, mysterious colonel (Alan Rickman). Ang Lee's Jane Austen adaptation stands with the best period pieces of its like, with its brilliantly lit cinematography and an exceptional cast, especially Thompson who also won an Oscar for writing the screenplay.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Friday, March 24, 2017

Tower

Shown mostly through animation and some stock footage, witnesses recount that blistering August day in 1966 when Charles Whitman, after killing his mom and wife, rode the elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower with a considerate arsenal and held the campus hostage during 96 minutes of terror where he murdered 16 people with a high powered rifle and was finally thwarted through the actions of brave police officers and civilians. Keith Maitland's documentary is intense. frightening, and overall well mounted but seems like it could have gone further, with the animation being overdone and not nearly enough use made of actual footage.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Rocco and His Brothers

An impoverished, stereotypical Italian mother moves her four sons from the country to Milan both to be near her eldest boy and to seek a better life. There, the two eldest (a cherubic Alain Delon and a debased Renato Salvatori) find success in the boxing ring and their lives torn to shreds over a stunningly gorgeous, reformed ex-prostitute (Annie Girardot). Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers is a sweeping, powerful, tonally shifting late period neorealism with great performances all around two second act unforgettable violent sequences involving Salvatori and Girardot.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Live and Let Die

Three MI6 agents are killed simultaneously in New York, New Orleans, and a voodoo island nation putting Bond on the tail of a highly coordinated black market organization seeking to corner the world heroin market and their well mannered leader (Yaphet Kotto) also posing as a Harlem kingpin/pimp while enslaving a high priestess fortune teller (Jane Seymour). Moore's first showing as 007, who is astonishingly even more nonchalant and coy than Sean Connery, is an amusing but totally forgettable and ponderous blaxploitation exercise with villains and set pieces that leave a lot to be desired, Seymour a beautiful Bond girl, and Paul and Linda McCartney's great theme song put to good use.
** 1/2 out of ****

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mephisto

As he moves from Hamburg to Berlin, an actor's star rises alongside Hitler's as he becomes an unapologetic pawn and a puppet for the National Socialists and sees his theater taken over, wife emigrate, friends persecuted, and mixed race mistress deported. From a book by Klaus Mann (Thomas' son), Ivan Szabo's film is characterized by a virtuoso performance from Klaus Maria Brandauer in what is otherwise a captivating but often incohesive production.
*** out of ****
note: I couldn't find an original language version of the film and was forced to resort to an American dubbed treatment which may have sullied my view of the picture.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Snowden

At a Hong Kong mall in 2013, as Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with media contacts in an attempt to pass classified documents gained from a Hawaii based NSA outpost, his professional career is looked backed upon beginning with an Army stint followed by a CIA run and some contract work that led to a continuing disillusionment at how the U.S. government cataloged its own citizens. Snowden has some of your typical Oliver Stone paranoia, sermonizing, and alternate history, which is all well and good for the iconoclast director, but the movie is way too pat, reverential and largely non-screenworthy and after more than two decades of not being able to craft a worthwhile film, it almost seems like Stone has plumb forgotten how. As for the acting, JGL falls into that trap of resting entirely on impersonation while the rest of the cast is limp and uninspiring except for Nicolas Cage who shines in an all too small walk on role.
** out of ****

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sherlock

Season 4 (2017)
John faces a tragedy following a shocking revelation while Sherlock deals with a psychotic breakdown due to drug use coupled with the arrival of an undisclosed criminally insane relative who has somehow aligned with the detective's deceased nemesis. The overcooked fourth season of Sherlock is so cheeky and contemporary with obnoxious side characters and Cumberbatch and Freeman barely keeping the tremulous series afloat and these extravagant frenetic tales seeming antithetical to its source material.
** out of ****

The Abominable Bride (2016)
This cheeky, self-referential holiday special wastes an opportunity to tell a classic Holmes tale set in Victorian London by proceeding in the same cheap, frenetic manner as usual and has one of the dumbest, timeworn reveals imaginable. The performances of and interplay between Cumberbatch and Freeman remain the main selling point.
** 1/2 out of ****


Series 3 (2014)
Following his supposed demise Sherlock reemerges in deep cover in the Middle East, an elaborate plot hatched with his brother Mycroft to foil a terrorist plot, and returns to Baker Street to resume his detective duties with John, cases which include a lethal blackmailer, a murder conspiracy at Watson's wedding, and another terrorist threat. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman remain the sole reasons for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sir Arthur Conan Doyle reimagining, which feature too cutesy and insipid storylines that border on stupid.
** 1/2 out of ****

Series 2 (2011)
With Moriarty hatching an even more diabolical plot, Sherlock and Watson find themselves entwined in three more mysteries, this time versions of Conan Doyle's revered classics A Scandal in Bohemia, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Reichenbach Falls. In Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's sophomore run of their retelling of the stories of the world's most famous detective, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman still remain the chief asset of the series, delivering compelling and intensely likable performances (I can't wait to see them both in "The Hobbit" later this year). However, as was my chief complaint last season, and one which has regressed even further here, these wonderful stories are given shabby and paper thin treatment. I also found Andrew Scott to be a poor choice for Moriarty. I feel odd complaining about a crime show with such rich character development, but here in a mystery series as such, storytelling must come first, and given the wealth of material given to the developers, we should be given something much more compelling.
** 1/2 out of ****

Series 1 (2010)
The most popular character in literature is supplanted to present day London where he acts as a freelance detective, only offering his unsurpassed brilliant assistance in the cases that interest him the most. Taking on a flatmate who has just been psychologically wounded in the Iraq War, he also proves to be quite resourceful in the detective's inquest, all of which seem to be the masterwork of an equally brilliant and secretive criminal mastermind. "Sherlock" is a BBC reworking of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in a three part series, each entitled A Study in Pink, The Blind Banker, and The Great Game. The series does an excellent job capturing the spirit of the Conan Doyle novels, and compared to the blasphemous Guy Ritchie movies, it is a most welcomed excursion. As Holmes and Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are excellent at capturing the essence of their roles and Cumberbatch is a particular joy to watch as the ingenious and sociopathic detective. I did feel the episodes were marred by overlength and "The Blind Banker" segment seemed to be an unworthy entry. "Sherlock" does succeed in being escapist entertainment, an acting showcase for the stars, and a return to form for the character following the recent film mistreatments.
*** out of ****

Saturday, March 18, 2017

RoboCop

In a near-futuristic version of a crime infested, urban decayed Detroit (which only seems marginally better than the real city) a cop killer (Kurtwood Smith) runs rampant and police threaten to strike as the corporation that controls the police union implements its latest weapon, a recently eradicated officer (Peter Weller) regenerated into the form of an indomitable, metallic, law enforcing agent who doesn't fully lose his human components and seeks revenge on those who bumped him off. Crude, sleazy, and ultraviolent, Paul Verhoeven's Robocop isn't even a fun kind of camp with the entertainment value quickly wearing off.
** out of ****

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ordinary People

Following the accidental death of his brother and a stay in the hospital following a suicide attempt and at the urging of his caring, somewhat aloof father (Donald Sutherland), an intelligent teenager (Timothy Hutton) in a wealthy Chicago suburb sees a kindly, unorthodox shrink (Judd Hirsch) to reconnect to his life and reconcile his feelings, chiefly concerning his cold, unloving mother (Mary Tyler Moore). Robert Redford's insightful and moving take on Judith Guest's gloomy book is minutely filmed and daresay captivating with wonderful performances (especially Hutton, an Oscar winner though this is really a leading role) across the board.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Within Our Gates

After her engagement is sabotaged by a jealous rival, a young woman returns to the South in order to save an impoverished rural school while her family's harrowing history of lynching is told in flashback. Within Our Gates has the distinction of being the oldest surviving movie directed by a black person but this tag really undercuts the fact that Oscar Micheaux's film is just a solidly crafted work able to stand alongside other great silent dramas. Edgy, relevant, and assuredly filmed with great use of intercutting in the finale.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

L.A. Confidential

Three detectives, a no nonsense enforcer (Russell Crowe),  a hated, career driven straight arrow (Guy Pearce), and a devil may care playboy (Kevin Spacey), in the early 1950s, ethically laxed Los Angeles Police Department are thrown into a seemingly disconnected maze involving crooked cops, heroin, rape, mass murder, blackmail, deep seated department corruption and a beautiful high end hooker (Kim Basinger) who falls for but may be playing the Crowe character. L.A. Confidential is one the few rewatchable great films that leaves chills up you're spine whether its for a piece of quotable dialogue, the performance, or the sheer craft. Brian Helgeland drafted one of the premier, labyrinthine screenplays (that miraculously somehow manages to make sense unlike Chinatown, the gold standard for L.A. detective movies) from James Ellroy's novel and director Curtis Hanson stages the picture beautifully with a distinct 50s noir atmosphere and a supreme cast (the three leads doing their best work in my own humble opinion) from top to bottom.
**** out of ****

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Prisoner of Zenda

While vacationing in an unnamed Eastern European country readying to celebrate the coronation of its new king, an Englishman (Ronald Colman) realizes he bears a striking resemblance to the royal (Colman again) and, wouldn't you know it, stumbles upon him and hits it off immediately during a hunting expedition. Invited to his castle, he is soon forced to play his double when an assassination plot involving the king's slighted older brother (Raymond Massey) unfolds and spring into action when his new friend is kidnapped and placed in imminent danger. This often remade actioneer is exciting and entertaining adventure yarn with Colman tremendous in dual roles and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. stands out as a smarmy, nasty, edgy hand to the prince.
*** 1/2 out of ****

Sidenote: it is surprisingly how great Colman was in so many these old films and how his name has seemed to have faded from the public movie lover's consciousness.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Manhattan Murder Mystery

A sweet older couple bump into their unacquainted neighbors (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton) on the elevator one evening and invite them up to their apartment for tea and desert. When the wife is carted out the following morning after conceding to a coronary and the husband seems to offer no outward emotions regarding his recent loss, their recent guest becomes excessively suspicious and proactive, much to the annoyance of her husband. Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery goes on longer than it should but works in his oeuvre and, as the prolific artist reveals another talent, as a detective story. The film also contains some very funny one liners.
*** out of ****