The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg) *** - Among all the Marlene Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg collaborations I've seen, this is probably my least favorite but it's still a very good film in its own right. The film is basically a somewhat fictionalized account of the rise to power of Catherine the Great of Russia. The film has stunning production design and beautiful cinematography but the story itself doesn't really become great until about the second half. Dietrich is, as usual, fantastic and she's ably supported by Louise Dresser and Sam Jaffe.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Sydney Pollack) **** - Before reality TV, before The Hunger Games, you had They Shoot Horses, Don't They?. Probably because the director Sydney Pollack isn't particularly heralded among film buffs, this film tends to be overlooked (despite the fact that it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars with Gig Young winning a well-deserved one). Made in the '60s and set during the Great Depression, this film is still quite shockingly relevant today. It's about a group of people entering a marathon dance contest where they dance almost completely non-stop until one couple is left standing. It is thrilling, harrowing and occasionally even darkly funny. I think this may be Pollack's best film.
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre) **1/2 - This is the so-called abortion romantic-comedy about a stand-up comedienne who was just dumped by her boyfriend and gets pregnant by a nice guy she just met. Jenny Slate is excellent in the lead role. I hope she gets more acting work. I've known her as a really funny performer but she gets to show her range here. There are funny parts and the abortion storyline was handled fairly well (although it will do absolutely nothing to convince adamant pro-lifers). All in all though, it's just all right. It's still a romantic comedy, better made than most but nothing particularly outstanding.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) ***1/2 - A novice nun from Poland about to take her vows discovers she is Jewish and goes on a journey discovering the dark history of her family. There have been tons of films about the Holocaust and World War II and a lot of them are classics. They've dealt with themes on every conceivable angle. I thought the well of potential great films and great stories from that era has been tapped. I was wrong. This is a beautiful film that tackles its weighty subjects with subtlety and grace. The stunning black & white cinematography ups the austere themes. I've heard people say this is "Bergman-esque" but I think it's closer to Robert Bresson's minimalist dramas.
The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke) *** - Thanks to my day job, I think I've actually seen a few episodes of the TV show. This is a whodunit with a husband, wife and a cute dog trying to figure out the mystery involving some money, a love triangle, a missing inventor, etc. William Powell and Myrna Loy are fun to watch as the crime-solving couple. There's quite a lot of surprisingly sharp, funny and clever comedy to go with the mystery. You'll find yourself laughing along with trying to figure it out yourself (provided you're spoiler-free, of course). It's no masterpiece but it's lots of fun.