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.

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