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.