Sunday, September 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 8, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (8/31/14 - 9/6/14)

The Giver (Phillip Noyce) **1/2 - I guess very low expectations made me enjoy this a bit more than I should. Admittedly, I have not read the Lois Lowry young adult (actually middle-school, I believe) novel about a dystopian society where emotions are de-programmed and sameness is valued above all others so I approach this PURELY as a film. And as a film, I thought it was an entertaining if rather derivative YA adaptation. I'm aware that this novel was written and published way before the YA craze happened and it's sad that they felt the need to make it more like those movies by throwing in a love story and making the main character older. Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep do well as supporting characters and I do recognize that there's a greatness buried underneath all those compromises that makes me want to read the book. All in all, disposable, pleasant entertainment.

Nostalghia (Andrei Tarkovsky) *** - Three stars is usually a "good" rating for me but in the standards of filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as his collaborator in this film, Tonino Guerra, this is a bit of a disappointment. A Russian writer travels to Italy to research about the life of an 18th century Russian composer. This being a Tarkovsky film, it's not as straightforward as that. I love Tarkovsky. Stalker and Ivan's Childhood are among my all-time favorite films. But even for me, this was way too slow, ponderous and oblique especially in the first 2/3rds of it. It felt a bit derivative of his and his screenwriter previous works. The cinematography though is breathtaking and it is a work that comes from a master filmmaker. But definitely not my favorite film of his. I do not recommend this film for Tarkovsky virgins.

The Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson) ***1/2 - Wow. This is a very neat discovery, a rather obscure one, might I add. A military officer from the Russian army wants to discover the secret to winning at cards and is willing to, so to speak, sell his soul to get it. This is actually slow-burn horror film. It doesn't feel like a horror film for the most part. It builds on a few scares and there's a supernatural element to it. I don't want to give it away since part of the fun is in the unfolding. I didn't know what to expect from this so I was kept on my toes a lot of the times. It paid off quite well. Anton Walbrook, once again, is brilliant in the leading role, as well as Edith Evans.

Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle) ***1/2 - I've actually never heard of this film until a couple of people raved about it to me and I have to say they're absolutely right. This is a rather funny comedy about a woman in a dull marriage who while jewelry shopping gets robbed by a very charming and clever thief (he prefers the term "robber") whom she falls in love with. William Powell plays the robber and he's perfect since he also charms the pants off of you so you find yourself rooting for him just like the woman played by Kay Francis. This film is I think Pre-Code so it's surprisingly naughty. (Were those special cigarettes pot?) They don't make romantic comedies this fun anymore.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (Seth MacFarlane) **- I've said it before. Seth MacFarlane is hit-and-miss with me. But I really enjoyed Ted so I was looking forward to this. Well, first the positive parts: I really loved the fact that they shot this thing in Monument Valley. You can tell that effort was made to remind you of classic Westerns of John Ford, Howard Hawks, etc. in the cinematography and the production design. As a comedy, I can say that there are three or four really good jokes that made me laugh along with a few that elicited pity chuckles. This is unfortunately a misfire. It felt way too long and the effort to weave in some earnestness fall flat. You're better off watching Blazing Saddles or even Rango.

Paid (Sam Wood) ***1/2 - This is yet another film from 1930 that I've never heard of before until someone recommended it to me. And it's yet another winner. I can't help but wonder why this isn't more popular. This one stars a young Joan Crawford as a woman who was wrongly convicted of grand larceny and plots her revenge against those who set her up. She does so by scamming people out of their money but doing it legally through loopholes and creative machinations. It is, in essence, a bit of a caper film where you have to guess who's playing whom but it takes a lot of dramatic and suspenseful turns. It is quite unpredictable. Joan Crawford was amazing. Highly recommended.