Monday, December 22, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/14/14 - 12/20/14)

Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau) **1/2 - I actually read the book years ago in college for a class. I remember liking the book quite a bit. I've never gotten around to seeing the film adaptation...until now. You'd think that a film adaptation of a book whose screenplay was written by the author herself, Laura Esquivel and directed by her own husband would be the best way to do it because they will be faithful to the books. This proves that it isn't always the case. This family s about a young woman whose family tradition causes her to lose her one true love to her older sister. There was sadly lost in the cinematic translation. It only translated the text but not the spirit of the book so it often comes off as being a bit telenovela-esque at times. Plus the magical realism of the book doesn't really translate too well. However, it is beautifully shot (one of the cinematographers is Emmanuel Lubezki) and the very well-acted.

By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet) **1/2 - Two Russian sailors get shipwrecked and rescued and brought to a small coastal town where they get entangled in a love triangle as they try to win the affections of the most beautiful woman there. This is one Russian film of this particular era that isn't a blatant communist propaganda film but it doesn't necessarily make it a better movie. As a relatively early sound film, there are scenes here that do come off like a silent film. It is also somewhat of a tonal mess with some scenes coming off as broad comedy mixed with a few serious scenes that are a bit jarring. It's not a bad film but it's an absolute must-see masterpiece either.

 Jodorowsky's Dune (Frank Pavich) **** - Count me as one of the fans of director Alejandro Jodorowsky. His film El Topo is one of my most favorite films of all time. Apparently in the 70's, he was going to make a film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune and it was to star David Carradine, Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger and Orson Welles. Yes, I wanted to buy a ticket too! I wanted to see that movie! But it was sadly never made. This documentary is probably the closest thing we'll ever have to see his vision. It is a bittersweet journey into the joy and pain of being an artist and the frustrations of not having your arts and dreams realized. It is an endlessly fascinating film especially since I wasn't familiar with the story myself and I'm a complete cinephile. This is gonna rank highly as one of my best of the year.

Living is Easy With Eyes Closed (David Trueba) **1/2 - Set during the 1960's Spain, an English teacher obsessed with John Lennon and the Beatles (he teaches English with Beatles lyrics) goes on a road trip to meet John Lennon as the latter is shooting a film. He's joined by a teenage runaway and out-of-wedlock pregnant young woman. It's a road picture combined with a quirky indie dramedy with a European flavor. It's pretty much what you expect when you read the synopsis. It's well-acted and pleasant enough but wholly unremarkable. It's the Spanish entry to the Foreign Language Film race. It's most likely not getting in.

The Goddess (Wu Yonggang) ***1/2 - This is a Chinese silent film from 1934. It's about a single mother of the young boy who works as a prostitute to support him and goes through the ringer in order to give him a better life whether it's through the judgmental eyes of her neighbors, the police or the gambler who sort of acts as her pimp. Today, it sounds kind of cliche and melodramatic but the film, despite occasionally being preachy, features raw, real performances especially by the lead actress who gives the film its heft and heart and it will really test the strength of your tear ducts. It did so without being too manipulative or over-the-top. This is kind of an obscure film (it was lost for a while and the print is damaged) but it deserves to be less so.

 Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty) **** - This film chronicles the lives of a group of people who live in Aran, a rock island in Ireland with very little soil, big waves and rough weather conditions. From the same director of Nanook of the North, this is the less famous Irish equivalent of it. Although in this one, they were more upfront with the fact that it is fictional narrative based on the real, everyday lives of these people rather than just a straight up documentary. There are moments in this film in which I was absolutely stunned at how unbelievably good it is. How did Flaherty manage to get all that footage? Even though you know, at the back of your head, that it is staged and edited, there's no way they can fake some of the moments you see which makes it all the more amazing. That basking shark hunt is as exciting as a lot of action scenes of today....and you know it's real! I might like this better than Nanook.

 The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones) *** - Tommy Lee Jones is a talented filmmaker as evidenced by one his previous directorial efforts, The Three Burial Melquiades Estrada. This is another Western, this time about a spinster who is tasked to transport three mentally-ill women to a place to better care for them with the help of a small-time crook. The film is well-acted. Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank shine. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is absolutely exquisite. It's worth seeing just for that. I was surprised by the third act twist but I'm not sure it completely worked which is, sadly, one of the film's flaws that prevent me from completely embracing it. It's a good film. It's a good effort but it falls short of greatness.

 Seconds (John Frankenheimer) **** - I can't believe I've never heard of this film before Criterion announced that it's releasing it. It stars Rock Hudson and is directed by John Frankenheimer. In a way, it feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. It's about a middle-aged man, bored with his life, gets talked into faking his death, reconstructing his face and live a completely different life. This movie is wild. From its creepy opening credits to James Wong Howe's wild camera movements, the film really keeps you on your toes on what happens next. Add to that some black humor and it's also surprisingly thought-provoking. It tackled some very heady themes. Rock Hudson was terrific as well. More people should definitely see this one.

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