Monday, March 31, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (3/23/13 - 3/29/13)

August: Osage County (John Wells) **1/2 - I just saw (and actually loved) the play so I know the material. The cinematic translation is not bad....only it could have been great but it isn't. The material is quite strong and the cast is mostly great (though I think Benedict Cumberbatch might have been a bit miscast since I don't completely buy him as Little Charlie) so it's watchable. Although I can't help but be a bit disappointed because it could have been really great since I can see the potential. Tracy Letts did manage to "open up" the play but I think in the hands of a better director, the material would have flown. Oh, crap. Robert Altman would have been fantastic. Oh, well. It's not essential viewing but it could have been a lot worse.

Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener) ***1/2 - I'm actually surprised I liked this as much as I did. I have to say that it's refreshing to see a GOOD romantic comedy these days, a genre which Katherine Heigl seems hellbent to destroy. Julia Louis-Dreyfus really should do more movies. She's a bright presence in this little film. The late great James Gandolfini is absolutely wonderful. It's bittersweet to see him in such a different role to what he's known for. Truly a huge loss. The film is smart, funny and a rather grown-up comedy which really is starting to feel like an endangered species these days.

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) ***1/2 - A mockumentary (sort of but not exactly) set in the late '70s/early '80s of a group of computer software engineers competing against each other to find out which is the best chess-playing computer software. It's deliberately crudely shot using or at least making it seem it was using, the video and editing equipment of its time period. Honestly, I wasn't sure about it at first but it eventually won me over. Some people might get frustrated by the weird tangents this film goes but I dug it. It's laugh out loud funny at times and surprising.

Gothic (Ken Russell) **1/2 - I've never heard of this Ken Russell before it was recommended to me. It's a fictionalized account of Mary Shelley, her husband and her sister's visit with Lord Byron and Dr. Polidori and the night they summoned....something which preyed on their fears and nighmares. Four out of the five principal actors (including Gabriel Byrne and Timothy Spall) give really big, scenery chewing performances with only Natasha Richardson (playing Mary Shelley) playing a somewhat believable human character (she seems to be acting in another movie). On top of that, there are quite a bit of freaky, spooky, startling imagery but unfortunately nothing really gels together. It seems to want to be a lot of things (campy horror, black comedy, etc.) but ends up being kind of half-baked. There are some cool, interesting things in there but it's only just okay for me.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo) ***1/2 - Man, they just keep on coming. Just when I thought I feel like I'm getting bored with the superhero genre (Man of Steel and to a lesser extent, Thor: The Dark World gave me that), Marvel managed to pull this one out of the bag. I was actually worried with continuing the Captain America story in the present-day world would be too much "YAY, AMERICA! RAH RAH RAH!" jingoism but quite the opposite. In fact, I think the folks at Fox News will not be happy with the message this film is trying to convey. It's an anti-fear mongering/anti-surveillance film wrapped up in the gloss of a superhero blockbuster. It's an overall rather strong film, better than the first and belongs in the upper-echelon of the Marvel universe films.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters (Ishiro Honda/Terry Morse) **1/2 - I'm not sure if I should review this film which came as an extra in my Godzilla Criterion Blu-ray. This is not a remake per se but a recut version of the original classic Godzilla picture with scenes involving an American reporter named Steve Martin (hehehe) played by Raymond Burr spliced into the original film. I've seen the original film and I know a thing or two about filmmaking so the inserts are very obvious. It's not a bad movie per se. Just very unnecessary.

Take a Chance (Alfred J. Goulding) *** - This is a Harold Lloyd short which came with the Safety Last! Criterion Blu-ray. It's no masterpiece but it's still quite funny, especially the latter half. You can definitely see the greatness that is to come.

Wadjda (Haifaa al-Monsour) ***1/2 - This is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (a country known for not having a film industry) and first film shot by a Saudi woman. The film about a tween girl, Wadjda whose only wish is to buy a bike so she can race with her male friend. Through her, we see just what exactly does it mean to be female in a very conservative patriarchal Islamic society. It's a nice little film that doesn't really become more than a nice little film though it could have. I hate to damn it with faint praise since I still highly recommend it because it really puts a human face behind the veils and shows the humans underneath but it doesn't go beyond that for me to place it into greatness.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (3/16/14 - 3/22/14)

Sleeper (Woody Allen) ***1/2 - When people say they prefer the "earlier, funnier" Woody Allen movies, they're essentially referring to this film. A neurotic nerd gets accidentally cryogenically frozen and wakes up 200 years into the future and then gets into a whole lot of trouble. There are lots of wacky, very funny gags in this one despite the fact that it's obviously dated. This is probably the most slapstick-y Woody Allen film I've seen so far. It's worth seeing alone for the scene where Woody fights a giant pudding.

Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin) *** - One of the opening lines of the first song number says that sequels are not as good as the originals. The line proved to be prophetic because this one is not quite as good as the original reboot back in 2011. But that's not the say this is bad. Far from it. It's still a really fun movie. The songs are not quite as memorable save for a couple. The celebrity cameos are fun and there are lots of genuinely funny gags and jokes. Overall, it's a BIT of a step down from the last one but still very much a worthwhile film.

Short Term 12 (Destin Cretton) ***1/2 - I'm actually kind of surprised by how much I loved this film. Despite the fact that I've been hearing that it's really good. Brie Larson gives an outstanding performance as a young woman who works in a home for troubled/mentally ill teens. This film takes place in the span of about a few days. It's sad without being depressing and sweet without being cloying. Brie Larson is great but she is also supported by a strong supporting cast of mostly relative newcomers. Definitely a film to see. A real gem.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (3/9/14 - 3/15/14)

Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra) **1/2 - The first two acts of this film, I must say, are pretty solid. I wasn't expecting much but an entertaining, schlocky movie where Liam Neeson kicks ass on a plane, no more no less. And for the first two acts, that's exactly what I got. But then the third act plot reveal is kind of ridiculous (and more than a bit jarring). It mars what could have up until then to be a solid B-movie thriller. I can't excuse lame plot twists even in schlocky B-movies! This is the second film collaboration between Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra and the second time in a row where this happened: Solid premise and first two acts then falls apart in the third.

Spring in a Small Town (Mu Fei) ***1/2 - This is classic from Chinese cinema. A dutiful wife married to a sickly man gets a visit from her husband's childhood best friend....who also happens to be her high school sweetheart and true love. What could have been a sappy, standard-issue sentimental weepie flick is of course given an artistic and emotional treatment. The third act in particular is spectacular. It takes a while to get there but once it does, it hits hard. This is In the Mood for Love before In the Mood for Love.

Need for Speed (Scott Waugh) *1/2 - I saw this film for one reason and one reason only: Aaron Paul. I love him in Breaking Bad. I think he's a tremendous actor. From the trailers, this definitely seems like cashing in the popularity of the Fast & Furious franchise. I was hoping it would give a bit of a boost in the genre with better actors in it (not to mention one of the writers is a freakin' Oscar-nominee). But alas, it is not to be. Aaron Paul tries his darndest and acts his heart out but it wasn't enough to save the lame script. The car stunts were, admittedly, pretty cool (LOOK, MA! NO CGI) but it's surrounded by so much bullshit that even those moments were not as exciting as it could have been. Aaron Paul deserves better.

Crumb (Terry Zwigoff) **** - An endlessly fascinating documentary on controversial cartoonist/comic book artist/satirist Robert Crumb. We get a peek into his life, his work and his family (among his brothers, as it turns out, HE'S the normal one.) You need not be a fan or even be familiar with his work to be fascinated by this remarkable documentary. It gets kind of personal, uncomfortable, shocking and sometimes really funny. Terry Zwigoff creates a fascinating document of a truly remarkable and unique artist. It must be seen by anyone even remotely interested in art.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (3/2/14 - 3/8/14)

The World's End (Edgar Wright) **** - The third and last (?) film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's Cornetto Ice Cream trilogy. A very funny film about a group of childhood friends who reunite to do a "pub crawl" in their old hometown only to find the townspeople replaced by alien/robot copies a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Once again, like with the other two films, the film is a really clever homage to classic genre pictures as well as being a really funny, really fun and absolutely delightful film on its own. However, this film cuts a bit more deeply because it also manages to be a bit more poignant than the other two. I think I still regard Shaun of the Dead just a wee bit higher but Edgar Wright still continues his perfect batting average. Loved it.

Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville) *** - This is one of the Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature this year and it's all about background singers, the unsung heroes of the music industry. It focuses on a few including Darlene Love and Judith Hill. It's a puff piece. I don't mean that as a slight but my problem with this film is not that it is a puff piece about background singers but that it doesn't really cut deeper than expected or share new insights that I was half-way expecting a film like this would have. The filmmaking is also competent and doesn't really do anything new. It is enjoyable. It features some great singing. You'll have some newfound respect for these people, especially if you're a music fan, but overall, it's not something that I would vote for as "Best".

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen) **** - Finally! I've seen all 9 Best Picture nominees. Did this deserve the big prize among them? It's a VERY close race. 2013 has been such a strong year that even the Academy could not make an embarrassing choice. After challenging and difficult films like Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen tackles yet another challenging and difficult subject matter: American slavery. A free black man is kidnapped and sold as a slave where he spent 12 years of his life. It features absolutely shattering and beautiful performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o as well as Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (who's VERY underrated, IMO) as their masters. Among McQueen's three films, this is probably his most "accessible" but it's no less a harrowing piece of work as the other two.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Rob Minkoff) ***1/2 - It's shaping up to be a fairly strong year for animation. After The LEGO Movie, yet another animated film hits it out of the park and from Dreamworks, no less. I'm finally happy that Dreamworks has got its act together and is putting out actual good work. I may have seen an episode or two of Mr. Peabody cartoons by Jay Ward because the original designs look naggingly familiar but I wasn't all that familiar with it otherwise. I didn't grow up with it. The film is fun, zippy and sweet. It's also surprisingly quite funny. I'm not generally not a fan of kiddie style scatological humor but I didn't mind them here. They even manage to weave in grown-up adult humor organically without snarky winking. There's an incest joke, a masturbation joke and a blow job joke In this movie which kids will most likely not get but grown-ups will. Best one to do since Animaniacs. It is pure fun. I wanted more.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Post-Oscar report

I was gonna write something more elaborate but I think this much tweeted photo is enough:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (2/23/14 - 3/1/14)

The Book Thief (Brian Percival) *** - In the immortal words of Kate Winslet in "Extras", "How many more movies about the Holocaust do we need? It was grim, we get it!" Well, I don't mean to knock this film too badly. It's far from a bad film. It's just merely a bit generic. So many great films about the same subject have been done and their notes have been reprised here. It's almost a mish-mash of everything. That said, it's a well-made film with very nice performances (Sophie Nelisse is a talent to watch out for). The film is heartfelt but a little bit TOO bleak for what is supposed a kids' film.

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk) **** - Wow! As in wow. The plot of course is pure soapy melodrama: A love "rectangle" of sorts between two spoiled children of a very rich oil baron, their childhood friend and a woman caught in the middle. He loves her, she marries another, etc. You know the drill. But like with other Douglas Sirk melodramas, he elevates the material into pure cinematic artistry. Absolutely super performances from Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack and especially Dorothy Malone who was deliciously wicked althroughout but blew me away with that courtroom scene. Add to that the very expressive Technicolor cinematography by Russell Metty. It is truly an essential masterpiece. I can tell it very heavily influenced a lot of the '80s American primetime soaps.

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock) *** - I have to say that Mary Poppins is one of my childhood favorites and still one of my current favorite films of all time. It's an endlessly watchable classic (though I have to admit, I've never read any of the books). This film, I feel, is like two films at once both very good in their own way but doesn't always work when put together. The back and forth between seriocomic behind-the-scenes cat and mouse game between P.L. Travers and Walt Disney and the lengthy flashback scenes focusing on Travers' alcoholic father is often jarring. But the performances all hold it together. Emma Thompson is wonderful as the fiercely protective creator of Mary Poppins. Unlike Mary Poppins, this didn't make me stand up and cheer but it's still a fine piece of work nevertheless.

Her (Spike Jonze) ***1/2 - I think that as time goes by my feelings for this film will be constantly changing and evolving either for the better or for the worse. This is a film that has a lot of elements that I admire greatly: The gorgeous production design, the beautiful cinematography, the fantastic score (courtesy of Arcade Fire, one of my favorite current bands) and of course Joaquin Phoenix's great performance and he's matched by a wonderful vocal-only performance by Scarlett Johansson. As of this writing, I'm still processing it and digesting it. I guess that's a plus in what could have easily have been just gimmicky, quirky plot of a man falling in love with his female-voiced operating system. I couldn't quite call it masterpiece yet. This is a film that I will probably rewatch someday.