Monday, December 29, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/22/14 - 12/27/14)

Magkakabaung (The Coffin Maker) (Jason Paul Laxamana) ***1/2 - A single father to a young girl who works as a coffin maker experiences tragedy when his daughter falls ill and dies. Filipino dramas (hell, mainstream dramas in general) tend to try to manipulate tears and emotion out of this. This one refreshingly takes an unsentimental, matter-of-fact approach to death, grief, loss, the realities of life and what life is like for the nation's poor. I kind of love the fact that the filmmaker deliberately made the main protagonist, a grieving father, supposedly a sympathetic figure as not very sympathetic sometimes (you sometimes get frustrated by his actions). It's an imperfect but very well made drama. Katzelmacher (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) **1/2 - I count myself as an admirer of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This is one of his first films but I'm not a big fan of this particular one. A group of people (couples, friends, neighbors, etc.) get their humdrum lives interrupted when a foreign worker arrives and rents a room from one of them. This film feels like the ancestor of the mumblecore movement, which I'm not very fond of. Basically, the film is structured like a series of disjointed talky scenes involving largely unpleasant and uninteresting people. It gets better as it goes along but not enough to completely win me over. It's still an interesting exercise and Fassbinder would come back to many of the same themes in far better films in the future. The Merry Widow (Ernst Lubitsch) ***1/2 - This movie surprised me. I've been catching up on a lot of older films lately and I've been watching lots of Maurice Chevalier musical/romantic comedies. I was, like, "What? Another one?" But I ended up kind of loving this one. A charming, handsome captain of the guard is tasked by his country to woo a very rich widow so that their small country wouldn't go bankrupt. It manages to be very funny, even sweet. Add to that some truly eye-popping dance sequences. It's not my favorite but it's still a highly enjoyable film that still holds up to this day. The Other (Robert Mulligan) *** - This is a nifty little spooky horror film about twin boys, one good and one not-so-good (I could even go so far as saying he's evil) but things are not always what they seem at first. There are creepy moments in this film and the performances of the twin boy actors who play the lead are excellent (though oddly enough, never acted again) and to hold their own with Uta Hagen who gives one of her very few film acting performances is no small feat. But something is lacking in order to make this a true horror classic instead of just a solid little thriller. Extra points to Robert Surtees' cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's score. We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson) ***1/2 - This is a wonderful gem of a film. Granted lots of bad movies (usually coming from Hollywood) have been made in roughly the same genre but very few are as sweet, honest, funny and surprising as this film. It's about three young teenage girls from the early '80s who decide to form a punk band despite the fact that two of them don't know how to play instruments. This film probably does a better job of conveying the whole "be yourself" message in 100 minutes than Glee has in 100 episodes. The film seldom falls into the trap of genres such as this and doesn't get into any of the annoying habits that most other mainstream films of this ilk often commit. Even the ending isn't what you expect. Forget High School Musical, show your teenage daughters this film! Laputa, Castle in the Sky(Hayao Miyazaki) **** - Man, I've loved every single one of Hayao Miyazaki's films that I've seen and this one is again no exception. I may have to see ALL his films now. This is about a little girl who happens to be a descendant from the titular Atlantis-type kingdom located high in the sky. It manages to be exciting, action-packed, funny and has surprising sweetness and depth. Despite being over two hours long (long for an animated feature), it didn't feel that way at all. It's what a fun kids fantasy adventure movie SHOULD be. I'm definitely watching this one again (perhaps getting a better Blu-ray copy). Is it just me or did a lot of American animators got a lot of their inspiration from this film? I can see some traces of it here. Still Alice (Richard Glatzer/Wash Westmoreland) *** - The plot sounds like a made-for-Lifetime, disease-of-the-week tearjerker: A respected and successful Columbia University professor/psychologist and beloved mother and wife gets diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer's. It's sad, tragic story and it could easily have been manipulative weepy. Though you may shed some tears here and there, the film is actually more honest and intelligent about it. It seldom tries to lay it on thick with the message and the sentiments and when it does, it tries to earn it. Julianne Moore is said to be the front-runner for the Oscar this year and with good reason: She's excellent in this. She's also supported well by Alec Baldwin, and surprisingly, Kristen Stewart who manages to not be a dull deadweight for once. House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller) ***1/2 - Samuel Fuller is one of my favorite filmmakers and I realize that it's been a while (IT'S BEEN A WHILE!) since I've explored his filmography. This time around, it's about an American military investigator infiltrate an organized crime syndicate operating in Japan recruiting GI's with criminal records. Basically, it's a pulpy American crime story set in Japan and it makes for a very interesting combo. Somehow the beautiful and exotic and gentle milieu (in eye-popping color) somehow compliments the dark, gritty genre of the American gangster picture. Robert Stack is terrific. This is definitely something to see. Mad Max (George Miller) *** - Believe it or not, this is one of my cinematic blind spots: The Mad Max series which put Mel Gibson (and director George Miller) on the map. With the fourth film (or reboot) about to be released next year and the trailer looking quite enticing, I thought it would be a great idea to finally cross this off my to-see list. The first film is a rather generic (well, as of now at least) revenge tale where the first two-thirds I thought were just okay, I guess (good action scenes but I wasn't getting what the big deal was). It's the last 30 minutes where I finally got why people love these movies so much. The film is good enough that I'd check out the rest of the series and I've been told the second film is so much better so I'm looking forward to that with much of the back story already out of the way. Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2 (Erik Matti) ***1/2 - This is the sequel to Erik Matti's own Tiktik and I have to say, it is a HELL of a lot better. Two years has passed since the events of the first film which, in a dark prologue, lead to the death of Macoy's wife. This time he's in Manila and he's fighting a different breed of aswangs. The film has builds on and expands the mythology of the first film and improves on it. The screenplay is a lot stronger. It also mostly succeeds in blending a genres. It goes from scary and serious, to an exciting eye-popping action movie, to rather broad, laugh out loud comedy without missing a beat or feeling like it's jarring. Lotlot de Leon, playing an aunt, is a real scene stealer. Her role could have easily been annoying but she manages not to be. It's almost feels like Edgar Wright directed a Raid movie with monsters. No joke! Judex (Georges Franju) ***1/2 - A mysterious vigilante is trying to right the wrong perpetrated by a ruthless banker. Eyes Without a Face is one of my favorite horror films of all time so I was really looking forward to seeing more of Georges Franju's work. This vigilante crime thriller (loosely inspired, as I suspected by Les Vampires, and the end title dedication confirmed it) goes into all sorts of crazy directions and plot twists, and it mostly works, surprisingly enough. A few subplots and plot points never get resolved or are half-baked and they keep introducing new characters, etc. Somehow these elements didn't bother me in this one since it was so much to watch. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt) **** - A couple of people have been recommending this to me. This is a relatively short (only about an hour) animated film about a guy named Bill and he has problems. This is my first taste (apart from his Simpsons couch gag) of the work of director Don Hertzfeldt and I will be seeing more just based on this. It is experimental, artsy and the animation is deliberately crude but those are absolute positives in this case. It is really funny, sad, surprising, dark, thought-provoking and even life-affirming ALL at the same time. Even in its short running time, you will be surprised by how dense it is. I've seen films twice this length that didn't give me this amount to chew on. It's a Terrence Malick film with laughs.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/14/14 - 12/20/14)

Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau) **1/2 - I actually read the book years ago in college for a class. I remember liking the book quite a bit. I've never gotten around to seeing the film adaptation...until now. You'd think that a film adaptation of a book whose screenplay was written by the author herself, Laura Esquivel and directed by her own husband would be the best way to do it because they will be faithful to the books. This proves that it isn't always the case. This family s about a young woman whose family tradition causes her to lose her one true love to her older sister. There was sadly lost in the cinematic translation. It only translated the text but not the spirit of the book so it often comes off as being a bit telenovela-esque at times. Plus the magical realism of the book doesn't really translate too well. However, it is beautifully shot (one of the cinematographers is Emmanuel Lubezki) and the very well-acted.

By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet) **1/2 - Two Russian sailors get shipwrecked and rescued and brought to a small coastal town where they get entangled in a love triangle as they try to win the affections of the most beautiful woman there. This is one Russian film of this particular era that isn't a blatant communist propaganda film but it doesn't necessarily make it a better movie. As a relatively early sound film, there are scenes here that do come off like a silent film. It is also somewhat of a tonal mess with some scenes coming off as broad comedy mixed with a few serious scenes that are a bit jarring. It's not a bad film but it's an absolute must-see masterpiece either.

 Jodorowsky's Dune (Frank Pavich) **** - Count me as one of the fans of director Alejandro Jodorowsky. His film El Topo is one of my most favorite films of all time. Apparently in the 70's, he was going to make a film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune and it was to star David Carradine, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles. Yes, I wanted to buy a ticket too! I wanted to see that movie! But it was sadly never made. This documentary is probably the closest thing we'll ever have to see his vision. It is a bittersweet journey into the joy and pain of being an artist and the frustrations of not having your arts and dreams realized. It is an endlessly fascinating film especially since I wasn't familiar with the story myself and I'm a complete cinephile. This is gonna rank highly as one of my best of the year.

Living is Easy With Eyes Closed (David Trueba) **1/2 - Set during the 1960's Spain, an English teacher obsessed with John Lennon and the Beatles (he teaches English with Beatles lyrics) goes on a road trip to meet John Lennon as the latter is shooting a film. He's joined by a teenage runaway and out-of-wedlock pregnant young woman. It's a road picture combined with a quirky indie dramedy with a European flavor. It's pretty much what you expect when you read the synopsis. It's well-acted and pleasant enough but wholly unremarkable. It's the Spanish entry to the Foreign Language Film race. It's most likely not getting in.

The Goddess (Wu Yonggang) ***1/2 - This is a Chinese silent film from 1934. It's about a single mother of the young boy who works as a prostitute to support him and goes through the ringer in order to give him a better life whether it's through the judgmental eyes of her neighbors, the police or the gambler who sort of acts as her pimp. Today, it sounds kind of cliche and melodramatic but the film, despite occasionally being preachy, features raw, real performances especially by the lead actress who gives the film its heft and heart and it will really test the strength of your tear ducts. It did so without being too manipulative or over-the-top. This is kind of an obscure film (it was lost for a while and the print is damaged) but it deserves to be less so.

 Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty) **** - This film chronicles the lives of a group of people who live in Aran, a rock island in Ireland with very little soil, big waves and rough weather conditions. From the same director of Nanook of the North, this is the less famous Irish equivalent of it. Although in this one, they were more upfront with the fact that it is fictional narrative based on the real, everyday lives of these people rather than just a straight up documentary. There are moments in this film in which I was absolutely stunned at how unbelievably good it is. How did Flaherty manage to get all that footage? Even though you know, at the back of your head, that it is staged and edited, there's no way they can fake some of the moments you see which makes it all the more amazing. That basking shark hunt is as exciting as a lot of action scenes of today....and you know it's real! I might like this better than Nanook.

 The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones) *** - Tommy Lee Jones is a talented filmmaker as evidenced by one his previous directorial efforts, The Three Burial Melquiades Estrada. This is another Western, this time about a spinster who is tasked to transport three mentally-ill women to a place to better care for them with the help of a small-time crook. The film is well-acted. Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank shine. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is absolutely exquisite. It's worth seeing just for that. I was surprised by the third act twist but I'm not sure it completely worked which is, sadly, one of the film's flaws that prevent me from completely embracing it. It's a good film. It's a good effort but it falls short of greatness.

 Seconds (John Frankenheimer) **** - I can't believe I've never heard of this film before Criterion announced that it's releasing it. It stars Rock Hudson and is directed by John Frankenheimer. In a way, it feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It's about a middle-aged man, bored with his life, gets talked into faking his death, reconstructing his face and live a completely different life. This movie is wild. From its creepy opening credits to James Wong Howe's wild camera movements, the film really keeps you on your toes on what happens next. Add to that some black humor and it's also surprisingly thought-provoking. It tackled some very heady themes. Rock Hudson was terrific as well. More people should definitely see this one.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/7/14 - 12/13/14)

Cronos (Guillermo Del Toro) *** - I've seen practically all of Guillermo Del Toro's feature films except this one. Time to remedy that. An antique storeowner raising his granddaughter finds an odd contraption resembling a beetle that stings him and gives him eternal life. I've heard about this movie but what I didn't know was that this was sort-of, kind-of a vampire movie as well. Del Toro would go on to bigger, better things like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone but this was a very solid though far from perfect debut film with practically all of his signatures and fingerprints (insects, religious imagery, body horror, precocious kids, etc.) all over it. You can practically trace all of his work to this film. 

Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl) ***1/2 - A struggling widowed single mother of a little girl hires a black housekeeper and her light-skinned daughter. They go into business together selling the latter's delicious pancake recipe and eventually makes a fortune. Then more drama happens. This is pretty progressive for its time with its depiction of race relations. Mind you, it is not 100 percent politically correct by today's standards of course but I could only imagine how mainstream white audiences saw it. This film's one major flaw is that the entire soapy love "upstairs white" triangle between mother and teenage daughter was nowhere near as compelling as the drama between the "downstairs" black mother-light-skinned mulatto daughter. Douglas Sirk made his own version of this story and trust me it will be watched in the future! 

Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon) *** - I loved Paprika so I was looking forward to this one. I didn't like this one quite as much but it's still a film well worth watching. This anime is about a pop star who quits her popular J-Pop girl band to make the transition into acting then she starts to get these threats from a stalker. Then it becomes even weirder and crazier. I heard one of Darren Aronofsky's inspiration for Black Swan was this movie and I can see why. The film gets crazier and crazier. You think it's going one way then another twist happens. Perhaps a tad too many twists. The third act was just a tad too over-the-top for my taste. But it's still a fun ride.

Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols) ***1/2 - Director Mike Nichols sadly passed away recently. I saw this as a belated tribute to him. Thankfully, it's a really good one. Two young college friends each share their respective sexual exploits and relationship troubles. Despite being set in the 1960's/1970's, the film surprisingly does not feel the least bit dated. It feels modern and relevant even to this day. The excellent cinematography courtesy of Giuseppe Rotunno makes this rather talky film cinematically vibrant. The performances of the four main actors (Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margaret - who's so fucking hot in this movie, by the way) are all terrific. 

Two Days, One Night (Jean Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne) ***1/2 - A married woman with children, recovering from a bout of depression, fights to keep her job after her co-workers vote to get her laid off rather than give up their bonuses. I love the Dardenne brothers. The films I've seen from them are pretty much brilliant pieces of work. They're humanist filmmakers in every sense of the world. Their works don't contain big dramatic fireworks but they still manage to thrill and move me. This is no different. Although this is not quite my favorite film from them (Le Fils and The Kid with a Bike both reign supreme), it's still a remarkable piece. Marion Cotillard gives a fantastic central performance as the woman fighting for her employment and in a way, her sanity as well. 

The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich) *** - This is a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical about a dancer who falls head over heels with a woman trying to get a divorce from her husband. Obviously this comes from a time when "gay" meant happy (though a few characters at the end there seem to imply they might be also going for the other meaning of the term "gay"). Of course, the musical numbers are fun to watch and really something to see. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are great together as always. The film unfortunately isn't quite as magnificent as Top Hat and Swing Time and the plot kind of slows the film down and seems to get in the way occasionally. But overall, a really good old-fashioned musical.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh) *** - I always dread seeing Oscar-bait biopics. They're either gonna be really good or really bad. Thankfully, this one is pretty good thanks largely to the two outstanding central performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. This one is about the marriage between Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane as well as his struggle with motor neuron disease. Redmayne is absolutely convincing as Hawking, I almost forget I was watching an actor and not the real Stephen Hawking. The film also manages to make a relationship that ended in divorce (spoiler alert) into something actually sweet and special. I've heard complaints about it not being enough about Hawking's scientific achievements, a criticism I kind of don't understand. The film DOES focus on his personal life, his relationship with his wife and how he copes with his disability but I think you really get enough science to know he's a brilliant man and his work is important. It's no masterpiece but it's nowhere near as offensive and mawkish as say A Beautiful Mind.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson) *** - I saw this on 3D HFR. It looked very nice albeit a bit dark. That aside, this concluding chapter of an overlong, bloated stretched out adaptation of The Hobbit is pretty much all climax. Practically 2/3rds of the 2.5 hour (relatively short in Lord of the Rings movies running time) is pretty much non-stop battles and action sequences. It's director Peter Jackson showing off. You can practically hear him saying: LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!!! ISN'T THAT BADASS?!?! LOOK AT THAT!!! THAT'S AWESOME!!! I tried to be the grouchy, high-brow critic but I must admit I often agree with him. It is very entertaining and few people can do great battle scenes like Peter Jackson. However, he has already done this all before. I feel like he's regressing or something. It's not quite George Lucas-bad but I hope he leaves the Tolkien world soon. I count myself as a fan of the original trilogy and though The Hobbit films are nowhere near as great, it is still splendid entertainment. I enjoyed myself immensely despite my misgivings. 

Le Grande Jeu (Jacques Feyder) ***1/2 - After he squanders a huge amount of money on his extravagant love, a young businessman is forced to leave the country and joins the French legion in North Africa where he meets a prostitute who remarkably looks like his love (Is she or isn't she?). I have to say that this film's protagonist is kind of unlikable and what he does in the conclusion of this film is frustrating. But despite that, the film still manages to get you to care for him and the ending is particularly haunting. It helps that the two women supporting him gives outstanding performances: Marie Bell who plays his love interest/s and Francoise Rosay who plays the wife of the owner of the hotel he stays in who's also an amateur fortune teller.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/30/14 - 12/6/14)

The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg) *** - Among all the Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg collaborations I've seen, this is probably my least favorite but it's still a very good film in its own right. The film is basically a somewhat fictionalized account of the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia. The film has stunning production design and beautiful cinematography but the story itself doesn't really become great until about the second half. Dietrich is, as usual, fantastic and she's ably supported by Louise Dresser and Sam Jaffe. 

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sydney Pollack) **** - Before reality TV, before The Hunger Games, you had They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. Probably because the director Sydney Pollack isn't particularly heralded among film buffs, this film tends to be overlooked (despite the fact that it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars with Gig Young winning a well-deserved one). Made in the '60s and set during the Great Depression, this film is still quite shockingly relevant today. It's about a group of people entering a marathon dance contest where they dance almost completely non-stop until one couple is left standing. It is thrilling, harrowing and occasionally even darkly funny. I think this may be Pollack's best film. 

Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre) **1/2 - This is the so-called abortion romantic-comedy about a stand-up comedienne who was just dumped by her boyfriend and gets pregnant by a nice guy she just met. Jenny Slate is excellent in the lead role. I hope she gets more acting work. I've known her as a really funny performer but she gets to show her range here. There are funny parts and the abortion storyline was handled fairly well (although it will do absolutely nothing to convince adamant pro-lifers). All in all though, it's just all right. It's still a romantic comedy, better made than most but nothing particularly outstanding.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) ***1/2 - A novice nun from Poland about to take her vows discovers she is Jewish and goes on a journey discovering the dark history of her family. There have been tons of films about the Holocaust and World War II and a lot of them are classics. They've dealt with themes on every conceivable angle. I thought the well of potential great films and great stories from that era has been tapped. I was wrong. This is a beautiful film that tackles its weighty subjects with subtlety and grace. The stunning black & white cinematography ups the austere themes. I've heard people say this is "Bergman-esque" but I think it's closer to Robert Bresson's minimalist dramas. 

The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke) *** - Thanks to my day job, I think I've actually seen a few episodes of the TV show. This is a whodunit with a husband, wife and a cute dog trying to figure out the mystery involving some money, a love triangle, a missing inventor, etc. William Powell and Myrna Loy are fun to watch as the crime-solving couple. There's quite a lot of surprisingly sharp, funny and clever comedy to go with the mystery. You'll find yourself laughing along with trying to figure it out yourself (provided you're spoiler-free, of course). It's no masterpiece but it's lots of fun.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/23/14 - 11/29/14)

The Leopard (Luchino Visconti) ***1/2 - I'm kind of disappointed I couldn't give this the full perfect score. I've loved the works of Luchino Visconti as well as the works of the three principal actors: Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon. The film is exquisitely shot with beautifully and perfectly designed sets and costumes. This is another film that has my admiration rather than my unconditional love. It's about an Italian nobleman who arranges the marriage between his nephew and the daughter of a rich mayor during the time Italy is starting to change its governmental and societal structure. Despite my reservations, it's still quite a beautiful film which I may revisit someday. 

Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian) ***1/2 - My personal favorite Greta Garbo movie is Ninotchka but after seeing this film, it may have some competition. It tells the true story of Queen Christina of Sweden who abdicated her throne. It may sound like a stuffy period piece but it is not. It surprisingly has a sense of humor and it manages to blend in well with the moments of political intrigue and drama. Being Pre-code (I think), it manages to sneak in some racy elements (implied female bisexuality is one of them!). Greta Garbo is really something else. How she manages to be a strong steely eyed monarch in one scene and woman giddy in love on another is remarkable.

Penguins of Madagascar (Simon J. Smith/Eric Darnell) **1/2 - Okay. I've never seen any of the Madagascar films but I thought the trailer to this one actually looked funny and Dreamworks seemed to learned its lesson on laying off the celebrity voice cast-driven, pop-culture/snark-laded animated movies. So I gave this one a try because the penguins do seem to be funny based on the bits I've seen. The film is stronger when it's a joke/gag-driven comedy. There are a few good laughs in it. John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch steal the show with their funny voice acting. Making Werner Herzog narrate the beginning of the movie was a nice touch (though I doubt anyone else in the theater knew who the voice was and why it's funny). However, this film also tries to incorporate an arc for the penguins in order to give this film some semblance of genuine heart and character development but unfortunately the two things don't mix well here. It is entertaining though. 

Dogfight (Nancy Savoca) ***1/2 - I've heard about this film before but only vaguely. I'm glad I got to see it because it is a truly a wonderful little gem. After bringing a plain, shy young lady to a "dogfight" (a party where Marines bring the ugliest dates possible for prize money), an 18 year old Marine about to be shipped to Vietnam immediately regrets it and tries to make it up to her and it blossoms into a sweet, one-night romance. It kind of reminds me of a more dramatic, darker version of On the Town. The film could have descended into pure cliche melodrama but the screenplay is smart and honest and also benefits from wonderful performances from River Phoenix and Lili Taylor, playing the main couple. More people should see this movie. 

Viva la muerte (Fernando Arrabal) *** - From its opening credits featuring a bizarre, graphically violent piece of art work set to music that sounds like a children's nursery rhyme song (I'm not so fluent in Spanish), you know you're in for something weird. It's not quite Alejandro Jodorowsky-weird but there are imagery here that's definitely not for the squeamish. It's about a young boy who discovers that his mother turned in his Communist father during the Spanish Civil War. The film hits you over the head with its anti-Fascist sentiments in such a manner that will definitely turn some people off. I find it all fascinating though I feel some of it is kind of repetitive and over-the-top.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/16/14 - 11/22/14)

The Drop (Michael R. Roskam) *** - Mild-mannered bartender gets caught in the middle of a web involving his bar being used as a "drop bar" (bars used as cover for dirty money exchanges by the mob). Of course nothing is what it seems. Adapted by Dennis Lehane based on his own short story, this film is just a tad too talky (rule # 1 of screenwriting: show don't tell) but thankfully, the very strong cast sell everything and makes you hang on to every single word. This film is of course one of the final on-screen performances of James Gandolfini and he is as usual excellent here but the film belongs to Tom Hardy who continues to impress as one of contemporary's cinema's most gifted actors. The third act twist would have been a bit ridiculous had it not for his performance. Overall, yes, I've seen this type of stories before and done better but the cast is so much fun to watch, I didn't care. 

Kapag Langit ang Humatol (Laurice Guillien) ** - The title translates to "If Heaven Judges Me". This is a restored version of a film from 1990 screened at a film festival. It's about a housemaid who falls in love with the son of her mistress and the mistress disapproves of the affair and of course you can surmise everything from there. It's pure Filipino melodrama with practically every soap opera cliche you can think of: love, anger, betrayal, adultery, deception, cancer, switched babies, etc. It's all silly and over-the-top but not enough to be subversive and not enough to be deliciously campy though there are moments. I think they pretty much used this film as a template for a lot of the Filipino soap operas on TV. It's pretty much a two-hour version of that. I wasn't bored. It's not terrible for what it is but it's not my thing. 

Black Coal, Thin Ice(Yi'nan Diao) *** - This film comes from China. Police find the chopped up remains of a man in a coal processing plant. Then after seemingly hitting a dead end, five years later, body parts start to come up again and they seem to be connected to the widow of the first victim. This is something that I admired more than I liked. I can definitely see what the filmmaker is going for. A neo-noirish detective story set in the desolate industrial landscape of China. Deliberately paced and also eschews the expected trappings of the genre. There are inspired moments. But the film overall, left me a bit cold. It's gorgeously shot though. 

The Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy) **** - A group of down-on-their-luck showgirls and their producer wants to put on a show during the Great Depression. But it's so much more than that though. Yes, this film features a bunch of dazzling musical numbers directed and choreographed by Busby Berkeley that are impressive even by today's standards but one thing that surprised me is that the story that wraps around those numbers is very funny and very sharp and tremendously well-acted. Predictable, sure but the actors give it their all and it's as fun to watch as the musical numbers which are impressive on their own. I loved this movie.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) ***1/2 - This year's winner of the Palme D'Or and Turkey's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. I'm more of an admirer rather than lover of Ceylan's previous film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which I think is due for a revisit by me) so I was cautiously optimistic about this one. I liked this one quite a bit better. It's about an aging former actor who runs a mountaintop hotel in Anatolia with his divorced sister and much younger wife. Despite the fact that this film largely consists of lengthy conversations, it managed to hold my attention almost its entire over-three hour running time. The actors play a significant part but the gorgeous cinematography of the beautiful rural landscape made the film for me. It's not QUITE a masterpiece since it lacked that extra something for me that would put it over the top. But as it is, it is a solid, admirable piece of work that would test some people's patience. 

Violator (Dodo Dayao) ***1/2 - How to describe this film? Best way I can describe it is take Reservoir Dogs add in The Exorcist and have David Lynch direct it. You pretty much get this movie. But it's so much better than that and it's so much more than that. It's about a group of characters stuck in a police station during a huge storm with a teenaged boy in a cell who may or may not be possessed by an evil spirit. But don't expect the usual horror or even crime drama arcs from this film. It goes off in so many different tangents and manages to pull off most of them quite well. It's creepy, disturbing and in a weird way kind of fun. This is a Filipino film which won Best Picture at a local film festival and I think it's gonna win more awards. It's my favorite Filipino film AND horror film of 2014 so far.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Francis Lawrence) *** - I haven't read the books so I'm assessing this purely as a movie-goer who enjoys the films (though I'm not a super fan or anything). This one is not as good as Catching Fire but still very much enjoyable. The two hours just flew by. I still think the obvious profit-driven decision to expand the third book into two movies was a mistake in terms of making a narratively strong film but somehow they did a passable job. If you're neither a fan of the books nor the first two films, there's little here to recommend apart from checking out of the last performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman who actually elevates a lot of the material along with a surprisingly strong cast of supporting players. Jennifer Lawrence is great as usual. It's a solid film and I will be watching Part 2. 

Liebelei (Max Ophuls) *** - This is one of the earlier films of director Max Ophuls who would eventually make films like The Earrings of Madame De... and Letter from an Unknown Woman, two films I consider among the best ever made in the history of medium. This isn't quite that but it's still pretty darn good film. This is about a doomed love story between a singer and a young lieutenant. You can definitely see the different themes and motifs Ophuls would eventually expound and perfect in his subsequent films all throughout this early work. It's worth checking out just for that especially if you're already a fan of his masterpieces. 

Paprika (Satoshi Kon) ***1/2 - I have to admit I haven't seen a whole lot of non-Studio Ghibli anime features and among those that I've seen, I loved only one:Akira but this film has been praised highly enough that I thought I'd check out. What do you know? I kind of loved it. A piece of new technology used to visualize and monitor dreams is stolen and weird things start to happen. Yes, it sounds a bit like Inception but I have to say this movie has a bit more humor, color whimsy and sex appeal and yet somehow manages to be more "grown up" than the Nolan film while also having a bit more fun with the whole conceit of dreams coming to life. The animation is visually eye-popping. I still like the Nolan film but after this, I think I'm lowering the rating for that one a tad.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

R.I.P. Mike Nichols

I haven't posted a non-Weekly Round-Up post in a long while but this merits one. Director Mike Nichols passed away today of a heart attack. He was 83. He had a distinguished career in comedy, the stage, television and of course the movies. My personal favorites of his works are Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Birdcage, the HBO miniseries Angels in America and the film featured above, The Graduate. The final scene is probably one of the most iconic scenes ever on film. He will be missed.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/9/14 - 11/15/14)

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall/Chris Williams) **** - *insert smart-ass joke about not remembering seeing Big Hero 1-5* Okay, that's out of the way. This is a terrific film. Disney Animation is on a roll. A teenage robotics genius mourning the accidental death of his older brother discovers someone stole his microbot invention to be used for less-then-honorable reasons and so he "upgrades" his brother's health care robot Baymax. The movie has everything: It is actually very funny, lots of clever, great jokes in it. It's visually eye-popping, lovingly designed. It's got some great action sequences. It also has a big heart and dramatic heft to create a terrific piece of pop cinema. I have to say that this is the third film this year so far that tackled the subject of grief and loss through genre and did it very well. (The other two are The Babadook and John Wick. Someone should write an essay on that or something). 

Chushingura (Hiroshi Inagaki) *** - This is one of film versions of the famous story of the 47 ronin, a group of samurais who take vengeance against the lord who caused the death of their master. It is 3 and a half hours long, only slightly shorter than the 4-hour Kenji Mizoguchi version. It's been a while (IT'S BEEN A WHILE!) since I've seen that version so I can't really compare. This particular version has a great first hour and a great last half-hour (the final battle scene does not disappoint). It's the two hours in between that is sadly a mixed bag. For every good moment, there's a dull, repetitive and meandering moment that could really have used a trim. But it's beautifully designed, shot, directed and acted and it's worth sitting through everything for the great parts.

Relaks, It's Just Pag-Ibig (Antoinette Jadaone/Irma Navarro) *** - The title means, "Relax, It's Just Love" in full English. This is a Filipino teen romantic comedy about a quirky with a capital Q teenage girl (the Filipino equivalent of the dream pixie girl from American indie movies, complete with purple hair) who drags a teenage boy from an upper-class private school to go to a certain beach so they can witness true love under a blue moon. Normally, I run as far away as I can from most romantic comedies. Filipino romantic comedies are particularly insufferable. The fact that I didn't roll my eyes or wanted to kill myself in this is testament to the strength of this film. Co-written and co-directed by Antoinette Jadaone whose film Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is one film I absolutely loved infuses this film with enough intelligence, bite, depth and great filmmaking to keep me interested. It's still a romantic-comedy through and through but it is one of the better ones. 

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) ***1/2 - A sociopathic petty thief decides to become a "nightcrawler", or videographers who go around taking crime/accident footage for local morning news outlets. This sort of feels like a somewhat updated version of Network for our time where people's voyeuristic tendencies and thirst for sensationalism equals a network's ruthless chase for ratings but there's so much more there. It's also a biting social commentary for the contemporary economic conditions combined with the cold logic of a capitalistic society to be financially successful no matter what the cost. All this is wrapped in a supremely entertaining, darkly comedic crime thriller. It pulls it off quite brilliantly. It doesn't hit you over the head with the message but it's there. It's anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal's fantastic performance. His normally kind, puppy-dog eyes is transformed here into a menacing, calculating creep. This is a terrific film. 

Yoyo (Pierre Etaix) **** - I'm a huge cinephile but even I didn't hear of the name Pierre Etaix until relatively recently when his films have finally been released on DVD/Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection after years of languishing in the vaults due to some legal problems. Based on this film alone, I will have to say thank God his films are now more accessible because I absolutely loved this film. This film is about Yoyo, a clown who grew up in the circus and his quest to regain his father's fortune. This film is Buster Keaton meets Jacques Tati with plenty of clever, funny gags, jokes and sequences. It even shifts styles and sometimes tone but it all somehow worked. I think this movie will be watched repeatedly by me. Check this film out. This should not remain obscure.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (11/2/14 - 11/8/14)

I Killed My Mother (Xavier Dolan) ***1/2 - I guess it's finally time for me to see what all this fuss is about. Ever since this came out, people have been comparing this then 20-year-old enfant terrible to Orson Welles. Not quite Orson Welles but I will say, pretty damn close. It is an impressive first film. This is concerns a tempestuous love-hate-love-hate relationship between a gay teenager (played by the young director) and his single mother. I can't help but wonder how much of this is autobiographical. In any case, it's a terrific film. Somewhat self-consciously artsy since it's very art-directed with off-kilter framing but it's charming here instead of annoying. The performances of the two leads are impeccable. I'm looking forward to exploring Dolan's filmography. 

Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock) ***1/2 - A husband of a famous actress is murdered. A young aspiring actress takes it upon herself to try and prove the innocence of the main suspect, a man she loves, by, what else, acting. Hitchcock made a lot of masterpieces and this is not one of them but it's still a damn good film that will keep you guessing. The performances are fun too. Marlene Dietrich (damn, I've been watching a lot of her films lately) and Alistair Simm are so good as the "femme fatale"-ish, probably murderess and the father of the young actress respectively. The rest of the cast is great too including Sybil Thorndike who provides quite a bit of the film's laughs. 

On the Town (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen) **** - This is from the same team that made Singin' in the Rain. It is no Singin' in the Rain, but very few things are really. But it's close and that still counts as a win. Somewhat loosely adapted from the Broadway musical, this is about three sailors who go on a trip to New York on a 24 hour shore leave to see the sights and "meet some dames" (i.e. get laid). It's a wonderful musical filled with some genuine laughs and heart and you'd be surprised at how they got away with a little risqué humor as well. As expected, the musical numbers are fun and dazzling, as expected from Gene Kelly and company.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) *** - I wanted to see this film in 70 mm IMAX but the only IMAX theater showing it is kind of far away and a tricky (and headache-inducing) commute (and no, I don't drive). So I settled for a digital IMAX. I like Christopher Nolan films quite a bit. I like his vision and his ambition that he brings to blockbuster genre pictures. I've heard this film be compared to 2001 and Solaris. Nolan's a pretty good director but he's far from Kubrick and Tarkovsky. That said, a lot of things here remind me of those two films, only with a more delineated plot. So if your problem with those two movies is that you need a three-act structure practically free from any ambiguity and you find them too "artsy", well, Interstellar is the answer to this. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I admired and enjoyed this film quite a bit. Beautifully shot, excellent visuals, sound mixing, design, etc. The acting is splendid. I appreciate the fact that they ground this as much as possible in real, believable science. But ultimately, it's not the masterpiece that it hoped it would be.

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev) ***1/2 - This is the Russian entry to this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. This one is about a man who is being forced to sell his house and land way below its cost by a corrupt mayor and other drama ensue. A slow burn for sure but the drama unfolds beautifully so. Despite the deliberate pace, there's always seems to be an aura sprinkled through out. The film is known to be quite critical of the Russian government and from what I can tell, a lot of it seems to be similar to the situation here in the Philippines though I'm not familiar with the minute details of it. But still, it's quite an absorbing drama, beautifully shot and well-acted by a fine ensemble. 

Mommy (Xavier Dolan) ***1/2 - I recently saw I Killed My Mother and it's safe to say between this and that film, writer-director Xavier Dolan must have a lot of mommy issues. Well, I guess we really have his mom to thank because she raised a very, very talented young filmmaker who created this remarkable piece of work. Anne Dorval once again plays a flawed mother, this time of a teenage boy with severe behavioral, emotional and mental problems. They are befriended by a neighbor who happens to be a teacher with a stuttering problem. The three actors playing the principal are all outstanding. Dolan manages to mine quite a bit of the same themes with that other mom-themed film without feeling like he's repeating himself. I wasn't so sure about the entire changing of aspect ratios but I warmed up to it. I'm astounded that he's only 25 and is already ratcheting up a respectable filmography.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (10/26/14 - 11/1/14)

The Changeling (Peter Medak) ***1/2 - I've often been told this is a rather scary haunted house horror film. Now, I finally saw it. It doesn't QUITE live up to the hype surrounding it but it's still a very well-crafted genuinely spooky ghost story about a musician (George C. Scott) whose wife and daughter is killed in a tragic roadside accident and moves into a house haunted by a ghost of little boy. There are genuinely chilling, creepy and disturbing moments in this one and is as usual superbly acted by George C. Scott. The mystery/plot keeps you on your toes and the pay-off is not disappointing. Highly recommended for Halloween.

Tarzan The Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke) *** - I've seen a lot of adaptations of the Tarzan story both in film and TV yet I don't think I've ever seen this one which launched Hollywood's long and on-going love affair with the Edgar Rice Burroughs character and Johnny Weissmuller's acting career. It's no masterpiece but there are enough set-pieces that actually holds up. Maureen O'Sullivan is also wonderful as Jane. Pre-code so it's kind of violent and a bit racy and it was made in the 1930's so it's also VERY politically incorrect but once you get over that, it's fun.

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson) *** - An aspiring musician joins an eccentric band featuring a lead vocalist who wears a big giant paper-mache head...all the time, without ever taking it off. Based on that premise, you can tell it's a very quirky film. It really tows the line between annoyingly quirky and endearingly quirky all throughout its running time. It's held together by the fantastic performances, particularly that of Michael Fassbender who has to act without his face throughout most of the film yet still manages to create a wholly convincing, compelling, funny, sad character with just his voice and body movements.

Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon) ***1/2 - This is my Halloween night movie. I have to say this movie is sick, disturbing, disgusting and absolutely fucked up.....and I enjoyed it! Adapted from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, this concerns two young med students experimenting with reanimating dead bodies. I'm guessing a lot of people will be turned off by some elements of it. One scene near the end in particular was so gross and disgusting, I had to laugh at how outrageous it is. One thing I have to point out is the score. It VERY obviously heavily borrows from Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho that I'm a bit taken aback that he wasn't credited for it. Oh, well. But still is a nice, fun, B-movie horror Halloween treat.

John Wick (Chad Strahelski) ***1/2 - There have been a lot of "revenge" movies lately, thanks to Liam Neeson, where assassins/secret agents "with a specific set of skills" usually played by an older actor is wronged then pretty much kicks ass. This is the BEST among them. This is Keanu Reeves' best work since, well, the first Matrix, I guess as a retired assassin who is wronged by the stupid-ass son of his former employer (played by Alfie Allen who is typecast here as a fuck-up). The action is fantastic and the story and the world is strong and believable with sprinklings of dark humor for good measure. It is one of pleasant surprises of 2014. Very refreshing since it's not based on any well-known property.

T'yanak (Peque Gallaga/Lore Reyes) ***1/2 - This is directors Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes' own remake/reboot of the 1988 Filipino horror film of the same title. I haven't seen it (though I do remember watching the trailers for it and being kind of scared) so I can't comment on how it compares. However, as it is, it's a pretty damn good horror movie. For those not in the know, a "tiyanak" is a ghoul-like creature that shape-shifts in the form of a baby. People hear its cries and when they pick it up, they pretty much eat you. There's quite an amazing balance of dramatic heft and self-aware camp that makes this quite a pleasure to watch. They use a surprising amount of practical effects in this one which is to its credit.

The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille) **1/2 - Don't let the title and the Christian theme fool you! This is a violent and racy Pre-code swords-and-sandals epic set during the time of the Roman persecution of Christians. This time it's about a Roman official who falls in love with a Christian woman. The film is lavishly designed and has a truly epic feel. But at two hours, it does feel a bit bloated and the pious elements doesn't seem to jive with the exploitative sexual and violent content (quite graphic for its time, and there are still a few scenes here that will raise the eyebrows of a super conservative Christian despite it being a 30's movie). Fredric March is great as always but the film doesn't quite work.

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.