Sunday, July 27, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (7/20/14 - 7/26/14)

Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis) **** - As it turns out, 1967's Bonnie & Clyde wasn't the first great film inspired by the story. This one came first. It's only somewhat loosely inspired by the Bonnie and Clyde story in this film-noirish story of two gun-loving lovers who eventually become notorious bank robbers. It's not quite as famous as the Warren Beatty-Faye Dunaway version but this film definitely deserves more attention despite the fact that it follows pretty much the same familiar tropes of anti-heroes on the run from the law. It is kind of B-movie-ish and pulpy but the performances are actually pretty great and the filmmaking is quite astounding, even a bit avant-garde.

They Came Together (David Wain) ***1/2 - After watching this film, I wondered why this didn't get a wider release. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are very well-known names supported by a mostly well-known supporting cast. And it's a very funny movie. Then I realize something: It's quite unmarketable to the masses. It's basically an often hilarious spoof of romantic comedies where every trope and cliche is lampooned and parodied in a very vaguely self-aware way where you either get its wavelength at once and laugh your ass off or you get lost. This comes from the creators of Wet Hot American Summer which has a similar comedic sensibility. I found this film often hilarious although some parts are hit and miss but when it hits, it's full-on hit. That said, it may not be for everybody. I highly recommend it though.

Hercules (Brett Ratner) **1/2 - I think lowered expectations made me like this a bit more than I thought I would. It is after all a film starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and directed by Brett Ratner. The film sort of deconstructs the Hercules legend with an attempt to ground it in reality and make him a more, umm, believable historical figure rather than a figure of myth and legend. It's not bad. But it's still far from great. The Rock is actually a fairly decent actor, when he's being a badass action hero who occasionally drops a zinger or two, but when he is asked to do something emotional and deeper, he falls sadly short. The same can be said with Brett Ratner. I can tell he wants this to be a sort of modern-day version of Jason and the Argonauts and whatnot. The man is trying to be Ridley Scott at certain points as well (even hiring his costume designer). But he's just not a talented enough filmmaker to balance the tone of serious and goofy which was often jarring. Ian McShane steals the show though.

Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker) *** - This film documents the 1967 Monterey Pop Music Festival with line-up of great bands and performers including the Mamas and the Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc. And the music is really mostly great and the film is well-made with some interesting visuals (which could be enhanced by certain substances, if you know what I mean) Even though I know that this predates Woodstock and Woodstock, the documentary, I can't help but feel that this is Woodstock-lite. Although it does contain footage of Peter Towsnhend and Jimi Hendix destroying their guitars on stage. That's something!

Man's Castle (Frank Borzage) ***1/2 - An online friend who is probably one of the biggest cinephiles I know ranked this as her #1 film of all time. I wouldn't go that far personally. But it's certainly a very good movie. This was made in 1933 during the Great Depression and a lot of mainstream Hollywood films would make movies focusing on rich people or musical fantasies or about the past. This one actually made a film about its present and its protagonists are poor people. It's a simple story about a con man/hoodlum/two-bit hustler who meets and falls in love (though he tries to deny it) with a young lady. Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young both give marvelous performances and the film balances the comic and tragic elements expertly. It's far from my all-time favorite but it is still a highly recommend film.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (7/13/14 - 7/19/14)

Begin Again (John Carney) *** - Coming from the writer-director of Once comes another musical dramedy about struggling musicians. It's not quite as good but it's still a very solid film. This time, a record producer gets fired from his company and falls in love with an female singer-songwriter. The film has a lot of charm, sweetness and heart. I wasn't a fan of rom-com/daddy-has-to-connect-with-his-daughter plot lines but the whole concept of making an album out on the streets is pretty great and will appeal to any aspiring musician or anyone who loves music. It helps immensely that the soundtrack is pretty fantastic especially the songs "Lost Stars" and "A Step You Can't Take Back."

Gertrud (Carl Th. Dreyer) *** - This is the final film of Carl Th. Dreyer, who is a phenomenal filmmaker. I have to admit I have VERY mixed feelings about this film. It all stems from my personal feelings towards the title character. She's a woman who leaves her ambitious politician husband for a younger musician, all the while philosophizing her ideals about love. She wants a man who will love her first and foremost, above all else as much as she loves him. The character comes off as being a cold bitch sometimes and sometimes a sad lonely sympathetic character. Her characterization can alternately be construed as feminist and misogynist. Perhaps that was deliberate. But it is frustrating. It's a film that I admire more than I love. All in all, I strongly....MUCH strongly prefer Ordet when it comes to late Dreyer.

Unfaithfully Yours (Preston Sturges) **** - God, I loved this movie. Preston Sturges is indeed fast becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. This time around it's about a world-famous orchestra conductor who has come to suspect his younger wife might be cheating on him and fantasizes different scenarios on how he's gonna handle it. It is often VERY funny and features Sturges' trademark combo of slapstick and sparkling dialogue but it's also surprisingly dark as well. Rex Harrison is amazing in the leading role, very capable of playing the serious and dark side as well as an excellent physical comedian (the scene where he accidentally wrecks his high-class apartment is almost as great as anything Chaplin and Keaton had done). This is an absolute must-see.

Slither (James Gunn) ***1/2 - Guardians of the Galaxy is about to open and I thought I'd check out a film of its director, James Gunn to get a feel for his style. If that movie is even half as fun as this film, I would say that it's a success. This B-movie sci-fi horror-comedy is so much fun. The plot is simple: A strange alien-like virus crash lands on Earth and starts to take over a small American town. The plot is a mishmash of a lot of films and features lots of references to classic horror and sci-fi movies, all the while making you laugh and giving you a scary thrill ride. Sure, the plot's derivative and in some sense, it's kind of predictable but there's so much fun B-movie stuff in here and such obvious love for the genre that you find yourself really caught up with it.

Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks) ***1/2 - It's been a while since I've delved into the filmography of Howard Hawks, one of my favorite American filmmakers. This one starts Cary Grant as the head of a group of ragtag pilots in an air cargo airline in a fictional South American town. It's not my favorite Hawks film but it's still pretty excellent piece of work. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are both terrific as is the ensemble of actors playing the different unique characters in the airline (including Rita Hayworth in apparently her first role). Overall, I thought parts of the film are better than its whole and I think Hawks has done better work. But still a must-see for those amazing flying sequences.

People on Sunday (Curt Siodmak/Robert Siodmak/Fred Zinnemann/Edgar G. Ulmer) ***1/2 - In the opening of this film, it boasts that it's a film "without actors" and introduced its five principal cast members as such. They essentially play a version of themselves as they spend the weekend together. It's not exactly a documentary but it's not a straightforward narrative either. The story is interspersed with numerous montages of people and everyday life in 1930 Germany and it creates an almost hypnotic effect that somehow sweeps you up and keeps your attention even though the story is kind of mundane because it is after all about ordinary people. There are moments of pure beauty and even eroticism (they sneaked in a implied sex scene!). It's very reminiscent of Jean Vigo's Apropos de Nice. Oh and Billy Wilder co-wrote the script.

Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood) **1/2 - This is the film adaptation of the hit Tony-winning Broadway musical that's basically the story of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons. You know, for an adaptation of a Broadway MUSICAL, this film is low on the musical element, with only enough full-blown musical numbers to BARELY qualify as a "musical". Personally, i love musicals so I was disappointed. Without the big numbers, it's just a standard musical biopic. For what it is, it's....fine. But the director is Clint Eastwood and I love and respect his work in general. Though this is somewhat of an improvement over J. Edgar, it's still kind of subpar. It's a pity since there are elements here and there that could have been great and the performances are generally pretty darn good. If you're a fan of the Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons, there's plenty to love. But overall, it's just okay for everyone else.

Storm Over Asia (Vsevolod Pudovkin) ***1/2 - It's no wonder communism in Russia lasted as long as it did. Their propaganda films are so damn good! As is the case in this film. This one is about a Mongolian man who is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan who finds himself in the middle of an attempt for British imperial capitalists to take over his country and his people. This film features some truly breathtaking filmmaking. Pudovkin shot this on location in Mongolia which gave it a documentary-like feel at times. The quality of the copy I saw was not 100% great but still, the cinematography in it was pretty stunning, I can tell. There are scenes that rival great battle scenes even in the age of CGI. A pretty darn remarkable piece of work.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (7/6/14 - 7/12/14)

Wow. This one was VERY late.

The Rover (David Michod) **1/2 - I thought Animal Kingdom was a solid crime drama so I wanted to give David Michod's follow-up to that a chance at least. The results are VERY mixed. Set in the outback of Australia 10 years after a devastating economic collapse that apparently sent the entire world (or at least Australia) topsy-turvy. An Australian man teams up with an American GI after the latter's brother stole the former's car. There are some effective moments. David Michod ratchets up the tension through atmosphere and sudden violence. But there are a few things that make zero sense which really mars the entire thing if you think about it. Plus I think Robert Pattinson is miscast. I can't quite get his character. Is he supposed to be mentally challenged or very young? He seems to be doing a Forrest Gump impression. The ending will anger a few people. It didn't anger me but I didn't find it all that satisfying. Overall, Michod's talent still shines but I'd file this as a misfire.

A nous La Libertie (Rene Clair) *** - Two con men try to escape from prison. One was successful and the other was recaptured. While outside, the guy who got out made his fortune by becoming a factory owner and eventually they reunite when the other gets parole. Complications though ensue. This is, by the way, a musical (though the music is fairly just okay). It's extremely well-crafted and there are some laughs. But unfortunately, I didn't find myself heavily invested in either character thus preventing me from completely falling in love with it. Under the Roofs of Paris was better.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves) ***1/2 - A lot of people LOVED Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I liked it just find but I wasn't one of the ones singing its praises as if it's the Second Coming. I wasn't really looking forward to the sequel so I was, at best, cautiously optimistic about it despite the advanced raves. And it's a very, very good film. I would say even better than the first one. The ape effects were a lot better and I love the fact that they really dug deep and found more depth to the characters, particularly the ape characters. Andy Serkis is of course excellent creating a full character with his mo-cap performance. Also excellent are Nick Thurston and Toby Kebbell as Caesar's son and the main ape villain respectively. Again, it's better than the first one but not quite the Second Coming. Matt Reeves, though, is slowly becoming an excellent mainstream genre filmmaker.

Life Itself (Steve James) **** - As a film buff, film criitc and aspiring filmmaker/screenwriter, Roger Ebert certainly had an influence on me and has become part of my life. I read his reviews, I watched clips from his show on the internet, I follow him on Twitter. I didn't agree with him all the time but I was always interested in what he has to say. It's obvious that he loved movies at least as much as I do and he loved writing about them, at least even more than I do. So I had genuine affection for this man and I'm happy to report that the documentary that chronicles his career is a remarkable film onto itself. The film doesn't shy away from the ugliness and difficulty of Ebert's condition: His lack of a lower jaw, his hospital procedures, etc. The documentary also doesn't shy away from Ebert's dark past, his flaws and the criticisms against him. But still, one can't help but be moved by Roger Ebert's spirit: His love for his wife, his step-children/step-grandchildren, his friends, his colleagues, the filmmakers he has championed throughout the years and of course, his love for the movies. I was deeply moved by the fact that in the twilight of his years, unable to talk, his mind is still sharp, never loses his sense of humor and his passion for writing. Quite simply, it's a moving testament to a man who loved movies.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Weekly Film Round-Up (6/29/14 - 7/5/14)

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ***1/2 - From the first frame to the last, this film is destined to infuriate many people and grip and delight others. I'm glad to say that I belong to the second camp. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who, under the guise of a beautiful human lady, seduces men in order to harvest their skin. The film takes a unique approach to the material, mixing actual scenes of Scarlett Johansson the actress actually conversing with men around London, beautiful visuals that is absolutely jaw-dropping and a narrative that does the courtesy of letting the audience figure out what's going on by themselves. It gives you a hell of a lot to chew on. I've heard people compare this to Kubrick and they wouldn't be entirely wrong. If that doesn't convince you, then consider this: Scarlett gets naked quite a bit.

The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) ***1/2 - I loved the previous Raid movie. It's a lean mean, almost non-stop action flick with just enough of a story to keep you invested in characters and give a damn what's going on. In this one, Rama infiltrates a criminal syndicate in order to flush out high-ranking dirty cops. This one has more of a plot than the previous one and I have to say, it almost gets in the way of it sometimes, making it a tad overlong. But oh boy, there's more than enough action to satisfy the previous film's fans. As usual, you will feel every kick, blow, cut, bone-breakage, etc. and of course, the effect is oddly exhilarating thanks to the great choreography, sound design, cinematography and editing working all in harmony. This is what an action movie is supposed to be!

Chef (Jon Favreau) *** - I'm glad I had a big meal before I saw this movie. All the delicious shots of all that food must be torture to someone who's hungry. That's just one of the things I liked about this movie. Actually, there's a lot of things to like about it. It's Jon Favreau going back to his roots as a filmmaker, making a smaller film after doing a bunch of big movies. Obviously, it's personal, sweet and heartfelt. The film is definitely formulaic but the strong performances of the cast lift it up and make it seem fresh with a bit of bite. The ending though leaves a bit to be desired. Even though it's already a bit long for a comedy, the ending felt too abrupt/a bit of a cop out.

Baby Doll (Elia Kazan) **** - Wowza. I can't believe Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams (who wrote a completely original screenplay) actually got away with doing this film. Karl Malden plays a middle-aged man married to a much younger and VERY hot woman who refuses to consummate the marriage until her 20th birthday. The film remarkably deals with its subject matter very tastefully, intelligently and discretely all the while turning it into a racy black comedy that will still probably raise a few eyebrows even today when explicit sexuality is more readily available in mainstream cinema.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (6/22/14 - 6/28/14)

Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki) *** - This one is tough. First of all, I think Seijun Suzuki is an excellent director with such wonderfully pulpy works like Gate of Flesh and Tokyo Drifter. This one seems like it would be in one of those veins but, I don't know, if I didn't know any better I would think whoever edited this might have been high or drunk or something. The plot involves a association of hit men. After one of them botches an assignment, the rest of the hit men all try to kill him. This film has a lot of great moments and great scenes but it seems strangely put together. It seems trying to be a Godard flick when it's not. Don't get me wrong: I liked it a hell of a lot. It has moments of pure brilliance but the too avant-garde editing which made me confused at certain points prevented me from completely loving it. I may change my mind in a few days after thinking about it.

Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski) *** - This is a French version of David Ives' Broadway play about a director on the tail end of a day of auditioning actresses for his stage adaptation of the 19th century erotic novel Venus in Furs when a very late auditioner barges in and somehow talks the director into a read-through of the play and soon the line between the play and their reality become more and more blurry. Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric are both excellent in their roles because well, they have to be since they're the only two characters on-screen. Roman Polanski does his very best in cinematically translating what is, based on what I saw, a rather stage-y two-person play. It still is rather stage-y. I think material is better seen as a play, seems more enjoyable in that format. It's far from Polanski's best but still a highly entertaining watchable film.

Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier) ***1/2 - It doesn't have the most original plot ever: A homeless man finds out that the man who is in prison for killing his parents is being released and then proceeds to plot his revenge. This film went the violence begets violence route. However, it manages to have surprises up its sleeves. The film is surprisingly quiet. It also takes its time to build its suspense and further the narrative which makes its shocking burst of violence all that much startling and effective (and unpleasant to watch, in this case, a compliment). Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier is a talent to watch. Seek this film out. (P.S. the original Jan Brady shows up with a machine gun, if that doesn't convince you to see it...)

The Immigrant (James Gray) **** - James Gray is probably one of the most underrated and under seen independent American directors out there. I happen to really love and admire all the films I've seen from him. The streak continues with this film. Marion Cotillard gives one of her career-best performances as a Polish immigrant caught in a love triangle between two cousins in New York city in the early 20th century. Joaquin Phoenix is also outstanding as one of the cousins who started out by pimping but falls in love with her. The plot may sound like pure melodrama but Gray's treatment of it is anything but. It is compelling, surprising and unexpectedly moving by the end. Add to that the outstanding cinematography and design and you have, I must say, one of the best films of the year so far.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (6/15/14 - 6/21/14)

Oh, crap. I forgot to post this. My bad.

Wings (William A. Wellman) *** - This is often credited as the first ever Oscar winner for Best Picture even though technically it shares that distinction with the much superior film Sunrise. This one won for Best Production while that latter film won for Best Artistic Achievement. You can definitely see why it won. It's a real epic film. The shots are stunning and exciting. It's extremely well-crafted. The special effects and the stunts still hold up to today. Unfortunately, the story they crafted around it is kind of a shallow romance that's now kind of dated and somewhat melodramatic. It's also borderline propaganda. Clara Bow lends some credibility and there are a few really good moments but overall, it's a good but not great film.

22 Jump Street (Phil Lord/Christopher Miller) ***1/2 - The first movie was surprisingly good. The directing duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller are starting to build an excellent rep as one of the best mainstream comedy directors out there. This one is in some ways even better than the first one because it builds on the absurdity of the first one, adding a layer of meta-humor but fortunately never goes overboard. It still managed to create a cohesive story where you give a damn what happens. Ice Cube almost steals the movie in this one. There are lots of really good laughs in this film but the end credits were easily the funniest.

Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock) ***1/2 - This is another one of Hitchcock's early works. I thought it was a silent movie but it's really a very early talkie. A cop's girlfriend stabs a man who was going to rape her and they're met by a two-bit criminal who plans to blackmail them. I must say as I was watching this film, I can't help but see all the foreshadowing of the greatness that is to come with his visual motifs and plot elements. It's not my favorite Hitchcock but it's still an excellent film. You can definitely see his star rising in this one.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (6/8/14 - 6/14/14)

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone) ***1/2 - Contrary to what it might look like, I do not watch EVERY movie. I haven't read the book. This movie, based on the book, is a teen romantic comedy-drama with a cancer plot. It sounds like a sappy, manipulative weeper that would make me wanna run as far away from it as possible (unless of course it was directed by a director I love, like say Douglas Sirk but he's long dead so...). To my surprise, it got very good reviews (above 75% on Rotten Tomatoes) so I guess I *had* to see it to see what all the fuss is about. To my surprise, I ended up really liking it. Sure, it hits all the familiar beats but the strong cast and witty script (courtesy of the scribes who did (500) Days of Summer and The Spectacular Now) which manages to (mostly) maintain just the right balance of humor, drama, quirkiness, self-awareness, heart, tears, etc. Teen romance and cancer dramas are two genres that's so easy to crap up. For this to combine the two and manage to not be a overly sappy, barf-inducing, manipulative and cheap mess but instead a funny, sweet, genuinely heartfelt film is a minor miracle. Kudos to all involved.

The Kid Brother (Ted Wilde/Harold Lloyd/Lewis Milestone) **** - My catching up with the Third Genius, Harold Lloyd continues with this absolutely wonderful film. The youngest (and nerdiest) in a family filled with traditional macho men tries to prove his "manliness" and worth at the same time trying to win over a girl. Though Safety Last! may still be my favorite Harold Lloyd movie (so far), this one comes very close. The third act of this film is absolutely hysterical and at the same time genuinely suspenseful. Harold Lloyd should not have to stand in the shadows of Chaplin and Keaton. He is absolutely their equal.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois) ***1/2 - Well, surprise, surprise. I have to say that this is probably my favorite Dreamworks Animation feature film. Ever since they stopped the gimmick of crafting roles for celebrity voices and peppering it with wink-wink hip humor, their work has vastly improved. This one is their best one yet. It continues the story from the previous film but adding even more surprising depth, pathos and heart while still maintaining a great sense of fun, humor and spectacle. It has some great imaginative animation and a great voice cast too. They really stepped up BIG time for this.

The Unknown (Tod Browning) **** - I've been catching up on a lot of silent films lately. Just a kick, I suppose. This is from Tod Browning, same director of Freaks and I think this is sort of a nice companion piece to that film. A con-man/thief/murderer posing as an armless man in a traveling circus and falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the owner of the circus. Things don't go well. Lon Chaney plays the armless man. He doesn't wear any makeup or masks this time around but that doesn't matter because he gives a fantastic performance. One scene in particular blew me away (I won't spoil it here). Also a featuring a very young Joan Crawford. Despite being only 50 minutes long, it's quite intense.

The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg) **** - Yet another silent film! This silent film however, somehow, doesn't feel like a silent film, if that makes any sense. It's actually a fairly straightforward drama with a surprising amount of dialogue (mouthed and in title cards). The story still shines through. A stoker of a ship rescues a young woman after a suicide attempt then marries her. It builds up to an absolutely heartbreaking and moving third act featuring brilliant performances from the two leads. I've seen very little of Josef von Sternberg's work and this is yet another reminder that I need to further delve in his filmography.

Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita) ***1/2 - A baby girl is born in prison and is raised to become a warrior seeking vengeance for the atrocities that befell her mother. If Seven Samurai is a nice expensive steak, this is a really tasty cheeseburger. This is pure pulp and it's got over-the-top violence (damn, those blood spurts!) and B-level cheesiness but it's tons of fun. Quentin Tarantino borrowed heavily from this movie to make Kill Bill and I can see why. I've been liking way too many movies lately. Someone should recommend me a movie I might hate.
Noah (Darren Aronofksy) **1/2 - The release date of this film got delayed by a couple of months due to some legal between the local distributors. Now it's finally released, what do I think? Well, it's an interesting film. It's clearly a Darren Aronofsky film through and through. It's still in a way a character study of a biblical character like what he has done in a lot of his work. There are lots of things to admire and love about it. Clint Mansell's score and Matthew Libatique's cinematography are exemplary, as usual. The cast acquits themselves well. I can also see what Aronofsky is trying to do. Expound and retell a familiar Bible story in a different way incorporating messages on environmentalism and questions on the nature of God (merciful vs. angry) all the while trying to appeal to a broad audience, consciously not trying to be a dry Biblical epic. The result is what I can best describe as an endlessly fascinating mess that I would recommend seeing since there are flashes of greatness in it. This is the type of film that will have both passionate defenders and naysayers and will be argued on in film circles. I admire Darren Aronofsky as a director but this is not my favorite Aronofsky film. Not for Bible purists. Personally, for me, its deviation from the original Bible story is not at all a problem.

The Wind (Victor Sjostrom) *** - A down-on-her luck woman goes to the windy open plains to live with her cousin. After his jealous wife throws her out, she is forced to marry a man she doesn't love while being wooed by a married man. Lillian Gish's outstanding performance makes this film well worth seeing. The ending in particular is quite moving and wouldn't have worked without her expressive face. It didn't...blow me away (hehehe) but it's well worth checking out.