Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (10/19/14 - 10/25/14)

Oops. Forgot about this.


Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Miguel Arteta) *** - This is surprisingly NOT a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad movie. It's actually quite entertaining, contains quite a few good laughs and for a PG-rated Disney family comedy actually pushes the PG-button. However, it's not a GREAT movie either. I can definitely see the potential for a wacky, kids' version of After Hours (which is what i heard this was described) but I think the screenplay needed to be wackier and more absurdist than it ended up being. As it is, it's still pleasant and quite enjoyable thanks to the excellent cast who actually sell the material. This could have been far, far worse than it ended up being but it's not.

The Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel/Ernest B. Schoedsack) *** - Before they gave the world King Kong, the same team gave us a warm up with this solid adventure/horror flick. It's about a big game hunter who gets shipwrecked on an island and stumbles upon a castle where a Russian count whose hobby is hunting down "the most dangerous game", i.e. humans. It's no masterpiece but it's still an entertaining B-movie. With stuff like The Hunger Games being popular, I can't help but wonder why there hasn't been a jacked-up glossy updated remake of this yet (apparently one is in development hell).

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker) **** - An extraordinarily beautiful film. This is probably what Terrence Malick film would look like without any form of narrative. Technically, it's a documentary but it's so much more than that. Footage taken from all over the world are assembled (primarily Japanese) and this beautiful narration read over it which is said to be a letter from the cameraman which makes it deeper, thought-provoking, personal and frankly, poetic. There's some really jaw-dropping imagery here that is simply mesmerizing (as well as some shocking, grotesque ones). I expected nothing less from the same man who managed to create a science-fiction film almost completely from still photographs. I'm gonna be thinking about this film a lot.


Fury (David Ayer) *** - This film contains five characters who are basically walking character tropes from war movies: The Leader Who Has Seen It All, The Religious Guy, The Token Minority, The Crazy Guy and The New Green Kid. The film basically plays out like a solid, World War II movie. No more, no less. It is superbly acted and well-crafted but doesn't really add anything new. Even the characters, though well-played by its cast, only follow the arc that you would expect from a film like this. There are intense moments and really good moments but not quite enough to make this any more than a very good, solid war picture.

Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg) ***1/2 - When a former stage performer goes back to her old line of work to help pay cure her mortally ill scientist husband, she gets seduced by a rich man. This feels sort of like a companion piece to The Blue Angel but with Marlene Dietrich playing a far more sympathetic character (and she remains sympathetic despite the fact she makes a lot of bad decisions along the way). It is not my favorite among the Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations but it is still a terrific little melodrama that manages to be emotionally resonant, largely thanks to Dietrich who is terrific as always.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (10/12/14 - 10/18/14)

Cure (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) **1/2 - Akira isn't the only notable Japanese director with the last name of Kurosawa, as it turns out. This is my first foray into the filmography of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. This is a horror film about a series of murders that were committed by people under hypnosis by a mysterious young man. It is an intriguing premise, kind of reminds of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in a way. Koji Yakusho is as usual excellent in the lead role as the police detective. Despite all that, I found it way too much of a slow burn without real pay off. The intriguing premise and interesting ideas I felt never really reached their full potential within this film. Though Kurosawa is an intriguing director though. I will be checking out his other works.

Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian) **** - I think among the Maurice Chevalier musical comedies of the 1930's, this is by far my favorite. I loved this film. A lowly tailor barges into the chateau of an aristocratic family trying to find the wayward count who owes him a lot of money then finds himself unwittingly posing as a baron and falling in love with the princess. Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald make for an great on-screen couple. It's often laugh out loud funny (a lot of the jokes hold up well). The songs, courtesy of Rodgers & Hart, are consistently excellent (past old Pre-Code musicals are hit & miss in the songs department) and the direction is top-notch. I will be watching this again someday. "Isn't It Romantic?" is stuck in my head now, damn it.


The Book of Life (Jorge R. Gutierrez) *** - Guillermo del Toro helped produce this Mexican-themed animated feature and his fingerprints are all over it! The film, focusing on Mexico's Day of the Dead about a love triangle that goes beyond the grave is not a bad film. It's not a great film either. I hate damning it faint praise since it is gorgeous to look at and the animation is imaginative, very stylized in the most wonderful way plus the story had some potential. It has all the earmarks to make it great but it never quite achieves it. It is just very good. It's worth checking out but I'm not jumping up and down.

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle) **** - Whoah. This is an intense, exhilarating (just like the blurb in the posters say) film. An ambitious young jazz drummer gets tormented both physically, psychologically and emotionally by a brutal teacher who pushes him beyond his limits in order to realize his full potential and achieve greatness. What follows is not an emotional, feel-good inspiring tale (well, not-so-much) but a brutally honest examination of what it means to achieve one's ambitions. The buzz around JK Simmons' performance is well-earned, IMO (Mr. Holland from hell or the music teacher answer to R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, take your pick) but something has to be said for Miles Tellers' impressive performance. He further planted his flag as one his generation's finest actors. Oh and great editing too. Damien Chazelle is definitely a talent to watch.

White Zombie (Victor Halperin) **1/2 - This is a Pre-code horror film/pre-George Romero zombie movie about an American (white) couple who goes and marries in the house of a friend who wants the girl and of course in his desperation, he asks Bela Lugosi to turn her into a zombie. There are some creepy moments here and Bela is great as the villain and the story has some potential but the two other leads are kind of bad (even in the context of early 1930's type acting) and the story potential was kind of wasted.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (10/5/14 - 10/11/14)

Hari ng Tondo (Carlos Siguion-Reyna) **1/2 - Or in English, "King of Tondo" (though apparently the official English title is "Where I Am King"). Tondo is a place in Manila infamous for its poverty and high crime rate (a bit like our equivalent of Harlem or something). This is actually a musical-dramedy about a rich man who came from Tondo decides to move back in after much of his finances were wiped out, bringing along his two young adult grandchildren in hopes of toughening them up. The director of this film hasn't made one in a long, long while and it kind of shows. Despite the fact that it's set in modern times, a lot of it feels dated and tired since it pretty much repeats things that other filmmakers have done and in a not so interesting way. However, Robert Arevalo, the lead, gives a great performance and makes the film quite watchable.

Mon Oncle Antoine (Claude Jutra) ***1/2 - French Canadian film about a kind-hearted drunkard who owns the general store in a small mining town as well as being the town's undertaker as told from the point of view of his teenage nephew. This is a lovely little film that has genuine warmth and humor even when things become sad and tragic. It is marred slightly by a rather abrupt ending which I found kind of unsatisfactory. Though I might change my mind on that. As it is, this gets an enthusiastic recommendation on me.

Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch) **** - This is actually one of the last of the Pre-Code films before the Hays Code crashed the party. It is a delightful (and rather racy) romantic-comedy about a woman completely torn between two men, who are artists who she helped make successful. Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March are all very much outstanding giving really great comic performances. Ben Hecht's screenplay (based on a Noel Coward play) is just brimming with crisp, sharp, witty dialogue (something I envy and aspire to). It is wonderful, just wonderful.


The Brood (David Cronenberg) ***1/2 - All I know about this film is the infamous scene where a kindergarten teacher is brutally murdered in her classroom in front of her students by the title creatures. But it's actually a lot stranger than that. A mentally unstable woman fight for the custody of her daughter with her husband while undergoing an unusual type of therapy from a radical psychiatrist. The creatures are somehow connected to her. I can definitely say that once the big pay off happens, it's going to lose some people while some people will embrace it. I embraced it. David Cronenberg created something outrageous, shocking and bizarre yet somehow still grounded and sophisticated which he will perfect in future films.

Il Sorpasso (Dino Risi) ***1/2 - A shy, timid law student is invited by a loud, domineering, hedonistic man who borrowed his phone for lunch and it turns into a two-day road trip. This is one of the earliest examples of a road comedy featuring a loud domineering character getting a shy, timid character to go out and have some fun. This is Ferris Bueller's Day Off if it was good. Though the comedy here is much less broad than the more contemporary examples of this particular sub-genre. I will say that the ending of this film will anger a lot of people. I'm fairly mixed on it myself. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing but the rest of the movie is well-worth watching.

Platinum Blonde (Frank Capra) *** - The plot is kind of blah. An ace reporter falls in love with a rich, society girl and finds the rich society life boring and stifling while the girl's family looks down on him. However, the performances by the great ensemble cast led by Robert Williams, Loretta Young and Jean Harlow as well as Frank Capra's direction makes this romantic-comedy fly. It's no Lubitsch, of course but it's still quite entertaining and often funny. Sad that Robert Williams passed away shortly after this film premiered. I would loved to have seen more from him.



Gone Girl (David Fincher) **** - This film is absolutely insane and totally fucked up and I mean that in the best possible way. I haven't read the best-selling novel it's based on and I managed to avoid most spoilers. Even though I kind of sort of guessed the second act twist, I still enjoyed myself and the film still manages to surprise me. It's pulpy trash, sure but David Fincher's filmmaking absolutely raises it up and turns it into a Hitchcockian-by-way-of-de Palma-type thriller. It also manages to be also a really solid black comedy satirizing sensationalism in the media. It's a film that is sure to inspire controversy for years to come specifically on its depiction of marriage and relationships overall. Ben Affleck was great (surely playing off his media persona as well) but Rosamund Pike was truly astounding. The hype around her performance is well-earned. I absolutely loved it. Can't wait to see it again.

American Graffiti (George Lucas) ***1/2 - This is one of those films that make me go, "Damn, why haven't I seen that one?" Okay, time to cross this film off that list. If I didn't know he made this film before the Star Wars franchise began to eat up his soul, I would be shocked at how great he was in making a really human film with excellent performances and really good dialogue. The ensemble cast filled with future stars (I often went, "Damn! They look so young!") beautifully brings to life a series of vignettes interwoven together into one big tapestry about a group of teenagers joy-riding around the night before one of them has to leave.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (9/28/14 - 10/4/14)

Dementia (Percival M. Intalan) *** - This is a Filipino horror film about a woman suffering from early on-set dementia goes back to her hometown along with her younger cousin, which happens to be on a rather isolated island in Batanes (the northern most province of the Philippines). There she has to face the ghosts of her past, both figuratively AND literally. It is essentially a pretty rote, standard horror film with all the familiar narrative beats. But this film benefits from the acting talent of one of the Philippines' best actresses, Nora Aunor who gives the pulpy material its weight and substance. It is worth seeing for that alone (and for the travelogue-esque on-location cinematography). 

3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold) ***1/2 - I reviewed the 1957 original film, or rather the 1957 version of the Elmore Leonard short story. Now, I'm reviewing the 2007 version. I have to say that it is indeed one of the VERY RARE times when the "updated" version is actually better than the "original" version. It does so by keeping all the original's strengths while building upon it and expounding it, giving it a fresh new take. Sure, the action scenes are more elaborate, the violence and language more explicit but it's all in service of keeping with the spirit of the story. The performances are fantastic, of course. Russell Crowe's take on Ben Wade IS kind of genius. He made him more savage yet at the same time, he managed to make him more sympathetic. Also kudos to Ben Foster as the frightening, bad ass (and probably gay) villainous sidekick. 

The Threepenny Opera (G.W. Pabst) ***1/2 - Oh, I'm gonna have "Mack the Knife" in my head now. This film version of the Brecht musical play where that song actually came from is a bit of a surprise for me. I knew it was a musical but I thought it would be darker (like Sweeney Todd dark). It's actually more of a caper about criminals in the underground of London and all their comings and goings with strong satirical elements. It's actually pretty darn funny (the scene with the reverend was hysterical). As a G.W. Pabst film, it's not really my favorite but it is, again, very well shot and acted.

Street Scene (King Vidor) ***1/2 - Someone again recommended this film to me and again, it was indeed quite wonderful. The film basically revolves around people from one apartment building in New York City. The film is mostly set in front of this building as the characters go in and out. It's based on a stage play and for the first two or so acts, it feels like it but director King Vidor really made it work cinematically and it REALLY opens up in the dark third act which I won't reveal here. It's Pre-Code so it's a bit racy and mature, tackling themes that would be still relevant to this day. It's brought to life by a strong ensemble cast headed by Sylvia Sidney. Definitely a film to check out.

The Equalizer (Antoine Fuqua) **1/2 - I remember watching the TV series as a small kid in the '80s (though I don't remember any particular episode). This film BARELY resembles it. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Though I'm guessing super-fans of the TV show are bound to be disappointed. The basic concept is the same: Former super secret agent does vigilante justice for people. That's when the similarities end. It seems as though Denzel saw how much Liam Neeson was making with all those movies where he kicks the shit out of bad guys and wanted one for himself. On that level, it is quite enjoyable but in the end it's too long and gets a bit ridiculous. Still, it's well-crafted (Fuqua channeling Tony Scott here) and entertaining. 

Safe in Hell (William A. Wellman) ***1/2 - Yet another wonderful discovery from the 1930's. This is yet another Pre-Code movie and I must say I've been noticing that Pre-Code films have that VERY unique type of raciness and edginess. It's not as graphic as the grown-up films of today but they really, really push it. This film is one of those films that pushes it! When a woman working as a prostitute accidentally kills a john and burns down an apartment building, her lover helps her escape to a small island country with no extradition law where certain twists and turns happen which leads to a very heartbreaking ending. It is another wonderful film which should be seen more! 

Monkey Business (Norman Z. McLeod) *** - You know, this is one of those films where I can honestly say I don't remember whether or not I've seen it. Honest! So, what the hell, I watch it again since I'm gonna be a completist when it comes to the Marx Brothers. This is not their best work (I miss Margaret Dumont!) but there's still enough good laughs (Harpo is the standout in this one) for me to recommend it. This time the brothers bring their hijinks on a cruise ship. I think the plot got in the way of this one a bit.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (9/21/14 - 9/27/14)

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball) **1/2 - I've never heard of this book before it was announced that it was to be made into a movie starring Dylan O'Brien to which I said, "What is that and who's Dylan O'Brien?" The film sets up an intriguing premise, a teenage boy finds himself commune of boys surrounded by a mysterious maze with no memory of who he is or how he got there in the first place. As the story progresses, it reveals that it's just another Hunger Games rip-off. But it's entertaining enough, it's slickly-made and the actors are fine. I wasn't bored. It's too bad most of the interesting characters were killed off (just a word of warning).

Waterloo Bridge (James Whale) ***1/2 - James Whale of course is primarily known as a horror movie director having helmed the most famous film version of Frankenstein. But his non-horror movies deserve attention too. Like this wonderful little gem. Set during the First World War (a lot of films of this era seem to be set in this time!), it's a bittersweet love story between a chorus girl turned prostitute and a young soldier. Despite the serious subject matter, Whale manages to pepper it with plenty of humor. Mae Clarke is outstanding as the chorus girl. It's a nice gem of a film.


The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable/Anthony Stacchi) ***1/2 - This is a stop-motion animated feature from LAIKA, the same company that gave us Coraline and ParaNorman. This one is not QUITE as great as those two films but it is still a wonderful piece of work. This film about misunderstood monsters has a bunch of clever gags and eye-popping visuals and like the previous two films, also kind of dark, darker (and also kind of gross) than what you can expect from what's really a kids' film. Ben Kingsley gives a fantastic voice-over performance as the villain. You can tell he is having a wonderful time hamming it up and the animation matches it. Extra points for the Monty Python references (including a song written by Eric Idle) and the wonderful end credit sequence.

3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Daves) *** - This is the 1957 original film, or should I say the first film version of the Elmore Leonard short story. This is about a peaceful rancher who is tasked to escort a prisoner to the titular train. It's a good film but I feel it is kind of standard Western fare but one thing that does make it worth checking out is Glenn Ford's performance. His Ben Wade is charming and devious and you always keep on guessing where he's coming from and what he's going to do which is of course crucial to the tense third act. It's a real solid entry to the Western genre.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (9/14/14 - 9/20/14)

All The President's Men (Alan J. Pakula) ***1/2 - This is one of those films that are filed under "Why Haven't I Seen That One Yet?" category as in films that you'd be surprised I haven't seen since I'm a humungous film buff. This is of course the cinematic dramatization of Woodward and Bernstein's famous expose of the Watergate scandal which brought down Richard Nixon's presidency. Even though I already know how it ends, the film to its credit still manages to hold my interest and tells a gripping, compelling story. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are both very good as the two famous journalists but the film's highlights are the little supporting character roles that pop up here and there: Jason Robards Jr., Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook, etc.

The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman) *** - This film is about a young petty thief's rise to become a gangster during Prohibition. James Cagney of course gives one of his famous gangster performances in this and he's one of the reasons why this film would be recommended viewing. 1931 is shaping up to be the year of the anti-hero between this and Little Caesar. Personally, I strongly prefer the Edward G. Robinson gangster flick. James Cagney would go on to be in better films and better films will be made of the same subject matter. But still, this is a very good film and a must-see if you're a fan of Cagney's and the genre.


Ping-Pong Summer (Michael Tully) **1/2 - Coming of age teen comedy set in the 1980's about a somewhat awkward teen who tries to win the girl and prove himself through Ping-Pong. It's not really a bad film. It's well-made and reasonably well-acted but it's super-cliche. We have seen all these characters, tropes and narrative beats before in both coming of age teen comedies and also sports movies. It's right there cobbled together with a healthy dosage of '80s nostalgia which is laid on pretty thick. It's an inoffensive time killer but there are far better films of the same stripe out there.

The Long Gray Line (John Ford) **** - This is a biopic of Irish immigrant Martin Maher and his fifty years of service in West Point Academy. Okay, it is basically Goodbye Mr. Chips set in West Point but it is so much better than that. But of course this comes from John Ford, the director is more well-known for his Westerns but I think his forays out of the genre are worth taking note of and this is probably one of the best examples of it. It is funny, sad and moving all throughout and featuring wonderful performances by Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara. It is one of Ford's lesser known works which I think must be seen more. By the way, is it just me or does Ford really know how to frame a scene. Even though this film is set almost entirely inside a school and is basically a family drama, it feels epic yet never loses its intimacy.

Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton/John G. Blystone ) ***1/2 - This is not my favorite Buster Keaton movie. But it's still a pretty damn good film and very much highly recommended. A young man goes back to birthplace to claim his late father's estate only to find himself a target of an old family feud. As per usual, the film features some great slapstick sequences and pretty amazing stunts. It is a bit darker than a lot of Keaton's work (the entire prologue is very much dramatic) at least among those I've seen. The gags are hit and miss in the first act but the last 15 or so minutes are pretty genius.


A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank) *** - Films where Liam Neeson kicks the shit out of bad guys is almost sub-genre of films onto themselves. A bit like Steven Seagal if Steven Seagal was a great actor. Among that I've seen, this is the best. That's kind of like damning it with faint praise but it shouldn't. After an unfortunate incident, an NYPD cop becomes a private investigator and is hired by a drug dealer to find the kidnappers and murderers of his wife. It's actually a pretty solid thriller with actually more substance that you would expect. It's extremely well shot (by rising star cinematographer Mihai Malamaire Jr.) and Liam Neeson actually gets to stretch his acting muscles a bit here. All in all, not a bad film at all.

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent) ***1/2 - A single mother, whose husband was killed in an car accident the same night she gave birth, is at the end of her ropes raising a son with behavioral problems start to see and feel the presence of a monster called the Babadook. If you have a chance to see this extraordinary Australian horror film, SEE IT. Horror films are a dime a dozen these days. So many bad ones are made every year so for a horror movie to stand out as something special without resorting to gore and titties. This year, this is the one. It is legitimately pretty scary but it also dares tackle very heady and very human themes of dealing with grief, dealing with deep-seated emotions and of course parenting. Wonderfully directed with superb performances from the two leads. I would describe it as Next to Normal meets The Exorcist. Seriously, I highly recommend it.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Robert Enrico) *** - Celebrated short film about a man who escapes execution in the titular bridge. I've heard about this film a lot in my circle. They keep talking about how much of a shock the ending is. I think I read somewhere this film actually "invented" the twist ending in a way. I will say that it is well-made but I can't help but feel a bit disappointed because I actually GUESSED the ending a few minutes before it happened. It's a fine movie. It didn't live up to the hype.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (9/7/14 - 9/13/14)

Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wadja) *** - The third film in director Andrzej Wadja's War trilogy, this one is about the tail end of World War II when communists and the non-communists are fighting for control of Poland after the German occupation. The film starts strongly and ends very strongly but kind of meanders a bit in the middle. It is beautifully shot with sprinklings of suspense and black comedy but overall, I think I strongly prefer Kanal. This is another one of those admire and like a lot but not love type of films.

The Big House (George W. Hill) ***1/2 - This is yet another film from 1930 that is rather obscure but was recommended to me. This is about a young man who was sent to prison for manslaughter and we're introduced into an over-populated prison and harsh prison life. The film takes twists and turns that you may not expect (for instance your sympathies change from act one to act two). The ending is also quite violent, more violent than Scarface. Great performances by all especially Wallace Beery who created a fully human character which could have easily have been a one-dimensional stereotypical villain.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern/Amanda Sundberg) ***1/2 - Joan Rivers sadly passed away this week. I thought this would be a perfect time to finally check out the acclaimed documentary chronicling her life and career. It is truly a wonderful documentary. It was a very eye-opening, fascinating look into the ups and downs of a very fascinating and determined woman committed to her craft. It is often funny, sad, sweet, moving and even inspiring. If you only know Joan Rivers from her abrasive persona on TV, this documentary will definitely make you see her in a different light, maybe even respect her more. Well, now, it's a film that's bittersweet knowing that she's now gone and is a reminder on what we have lost.


Westfront 1918 (G.W. Pabst) ***1/2 - Forgive me if I keep on comparing this film to All Quiet in the Western Front but one can't help it since they tackle the same exact subject: German soldiers during World War I and they were even released the same year. They even follow a similar structure: It doesn't follow a conventional narrative thru-line, just a series of scenes that happen chronologically featuring some of the same characters all through out. I must say this one did it better. Admittedly, it is a less emotional and sentimental film. It doesn't try and milk your tears. It's also a lot less preachy and more nuanced on tackling the subject of war. It also has a sense of humor and a more complex depiction of its female characters. Even though it's my least favorite G.W. Pabst film I've seen so far, it's still quite a solid piece of work.

Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy) **** - A brazen, arrogant, notorious gangster shoots his way to the top of the crime world. This is one of Edward G. Robinson's most famous iconic roles. Despite the fact that I already know the ending (I think most film buffs are already familiar with the line, "Is this the end of Rico?"), I found this to be a really gripping, intriguing film. Edward G. Robinson, despite not being the most handsome face and despite his character being largely unlikeable, really holds your attention and creates one of cinema's most fascinating anti-heroes. Say, I really wasn't seeing things when I think the title character is gay, right?

Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (F.W. Murnau) ***1/2 - This is sadly F.W. Murnau's final film since he died from an automobile accident a week before it premiered. It's a somewhat of a silent film focusing on a love story between two south sea islanders. Unfortunately the girl is the "Chosen One" and must be required to be celibate and having desires on her is "tabu". What follows is a beautiful but rather sad love story. The film is beautifully filmed and Murnau (along with Robert Flaherty who helped him direct it) gets very naturalistic performances from the largely non-Western/non-professional actors. The score is fantastic as well. Despite being of a very different milieu, Murnau still managed to make it feel like his film.