Sunday, June 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 9, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (6/1/14 - 6/7/14)

Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson) *** - Two drunk unemployed actors who are friends and roommates decide to take a break from their miserable existence by going to a rustic farm house. It is excellently acted and it is often very funny (especially the stuff involving Richard Griffiths' character). Lead actors Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant make a great team. The film though doesn't quite reach the greatness its cultish reputation suggests, at least for me. It is still a solid dark comedy though.

White Heat (Raoul Walsh) **** - This is one of James Cagney's most iconic roles with one of his most well-known catchphrases ("Top of the world, Ma!") and after seeing it, you'll completely understand why. It's fantastic. This is a film about murderous career criminal named Cody Jarrettt and the undercover police officer assigned to bring him down. Cody is a nasty piece of work but thanks James Cagney's outstanding performance, he makes him a really compelling and fully human creation. The film is also a really, really exciting crime thriller filled with heart-pounding moments thanks to Raoul Walsh's outstanding direction. One of the best crime films ever made and really earns its classic status.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) ***1/2 - It's another year and it's another high-concept Tom Cruise action movie where Tom Cruise kicks ass and gets to be the hero. But this time around, it's really, really good! It's Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. It's about a man who gets killed while fighting alien invaders but he gets the power to live the day again and again and again. Though it has all the familiar tropes of a typical summer action blockbuster, the structure allows it to play around with it and rises above it and made it really engaging and genuinely exciting. It's also refreshing to see a strong female character in Emily Blunt, who manages to outshine Tom Cruise (who, at 52, also manages to convince us that he's still not too old for these roles).

The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock) **** - This is one of Hitchcock's earliest films. It's a silent but even back then, you can already see all of Hitchcock's trademarks: The sneaky, morbid black humor, the fascination with psycho-sexual killers and of course the beautiful blonde ladies. The film is about a mysterious stranger (the lodger of the title) who rents a room from an older couple and their daughter and who may or may not be a serial killer who targets young blonde girls (oh and the daughter is a young, blonde girl). Even at this early, Hitchcock's editing and cinematography is highly inventive and masterful. You can definitely see the greatness that will emerge from this filmmaker. Terrific film.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Weekly Round Up (5/25/14 - 5/31/14)

Sherman's March (Ross McElwee) *** - This is a one-of-a-kind documentary. On one hand, it's a historical documentary about General William Sherman, a union general during the American Civil War who was infamous for implementing total war against the South. But historical tidbits take a backseat to Ross McElwee's love life as he copes with his recent break-up, meets new women and reconnects with old girlfriends. The film is always fascinating when the focus is on Sherman but, for me, very hit-and-miss when focused on his love life. I personally find, nine times out of 10, that when people turn the camera to themselves, that they think they're more interesting than they really are so I was wary about this. Fortunately, it's not the case with this....MOST of the time. I liked it quite a bit and it's still a very interesting piece of cinema but it didn't blow me away since I really didn't really completely buy the combo of his love life and the story of General Sherman.

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg) **1/2 - When I was a kid watching Disney animated films, the Disney villain that scared me the most was Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. She's quite the frightening, evil character with the horns and the vindictive personality seemingly doing it for sheer evil delight. So a film centering around her character was an excellent idea. Casting Angelina Jolie was another good move. The first act, establishing the motive of Maleficent, was pretty darn good and makes perfect sense but the film falls apart in the second act when it became just another fairy tale. I thought this film would subvert the Sleeping Beauty legend but instead it just kind of reverses it and becomes derivative. Even the resolution was something we've seen fairly recently. There are cool visuals and Angelina Jolie is excellent. Overall, it's not a bad film but it could have been something really special.

Je T'aime, Je T'aime (Alain Resnais) **** - Director Alain Resnais passed away relatively recently so I thought I'd check out another one of his films. This time it's about a man who recently recovered from a failed suicide attempt and he's recruited by a group of scientists experimenting on time travel. They send him back in time a year before his suicide attempt (maybe more) and we see jump around scenes from his life. It seems Resnais took the concept of jump cuts and ran away with it with this one. The film, under its time travel conceit, jumps around different time periods and challenges the audience to actively piece together what exactly happened. At one point it even makes you question whether or not you're seeing is real. Like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, this film is also about an unconventional love story and just as great as those two films.