Monday, December 15, 2014

Weekly Round-Up (12/7/14 - 12/13/14)

Cronos (Guillermo Del Toro) *** - I've seen practically all of Guillermo Del Toro's feature films except this one. Time to remedy that. An antique storeowner raising his granddaughter finds an odd contraption resembling a beetle that stings him and gives him eternal life. I've heard about this movie but what I didn't know was that this was sort-of, kind-of a vampire movie as well. Del Toro would go on to bigger, better things like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone but this was a very solid though far from perfect debut film with practically all of his signatures and fingerprints (insects, religious imagery, body horror, precocious kids, etc.) all over it. You can practically trace all of his work to this film. 

Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl) ***1/2 - A struggling widowed single mother of a little girl hires a black housekeeper and her light-skinned daughter. They go into business together selling the latter's delicious pancake recipe and eventually makes a fortune. Then more drama happens. This is pretty progressive for its time with its depiction of race relations. Mind you, it is not 100 percent politically correct by today's standards of course but I could only imagine how mainstream white audiences saw it. This film's one major flaw is that the entire soapy love "upstairs white" triangle between mother and teenage daughter was nowhere near as compelling as the drama between the "downstairs" black mother-light-skinned mulatto daughter. Douglas Sirk made his own version of this story and trust me it will be watched in the future! 

Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon) *** - I loved Paprika so I was looking forward to this one. I didn't like this one quite as much but it's still a film well worth watching. This anime is about a pop star who quits her popular J-Pop girl band to make the transition into acting then she starts to get these threats from a stalker. Then it becomes even weirder and crazier. I heard one of Darren Aronofsky's inspiration for Black Swan was this movie and I can see why. The film gets crazier and crazier. You think it's going one way then another twist happens. Perhaps a tad too many twists. The third act was just a tad too over-the-top for my taste. But it's still a fun ride.

Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols) ***1/2 - Director Mike Nichols sadly passed away recently. I saw this as a belated tribute to him. Thankfully, it's a really good one. Two young college friends each share their respective sexual exploits and relationship troubles. Despite being set in the 1960's/1970's, the film surprisingly does not feel the least bit dated. It feels modern and relevant even to this day. The excellent cinematography courtesy of Giuseppe Rotunno makes this rather talky film cinematically vibrant. The performances of the four main actors (Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margaret - who's so fucking hot in this movie, by the way) are all terrific. 

Two Days, One Night (Jean Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne) ***1/2 - A married woman with children, recovering from a bout of depression, fights to keep her job after her co-workers vote to get her laid off rather than give up their bonuses. I love the Dardenne brothers. The films I've seen from them are pretty much brilliant pieces of work. They're humanist filmmakers in every sense of the world. Their works don't contain big dramatic fireworks but they still manage to thrill and move me. This is no different. Although this is not quite my favorite film from them (Le Fils and The Kid with a Bike both reign supreme), it's still a remarkable piece. Marion Cotillard gives a fantastic central performance as the woman fighting for her employment and in a way, her sanity as well. 

The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich) *** - This is a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical about a dancer who falls head over heels with a woman trying to get a divorce from her husband. Obviously this comes from a time when "gay" meant happy (though a few characters at the end there seem to imply they might be also going for the other meaning of the term "gay"). Of course, the musical numbers are fun to watch and really something to see. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are great together as always. The film unfortunately isn't quite as magnificent as Top Hat and Swing Time and the plot kind of slows the film down and seems to get in the way occasionally. But overall, a really good old-fashioned musical.

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh) *** - I always dread seeing Oscar-bait biopics. They're either gonna be really good or really bad. Thankfully, this one is pretty good thanks largely to the two outstanding central performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. This one is about the marriage between Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane as well as his struggle with motor neuron disease. Redmayne is absolutely convincing as Hawking, I almost forget I was watching an actor and not the real Stephen Hawking. The film also manages to make a relationship that ended in divorce (spoiler alert) into something actually sweet and special. I've heard complaints about it not being enough about Hawking's scientific achievements, a criticism I kind of don't understand. The film DOES focus on his personal life, his relationship with his wife and how he copes with his disability but I think you really get enough science to know he's a brilliant man and his work is important. It's no masterpiece but it's nowhere near as offensive and mawkish as say A Beautiful Mind.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson) *** - I saw this on 3D HFR. It looked very nice albeit a bit dark. That aside, this concluding chapter of an overlong, bloated stretched out adaptation of The Hobbit is pretty much all climax. Practically 2/3rds of the 2.5 hour (relatively short in Lord of the Rings movies running time) is pretty much non-stop battles and action sequences. It's director Peter Jackson showing off. You can practically hear him saying: LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!!! ISN'T THAT BADASS?!?! LOOK AT THAT!!! THAT'S AWESOME!!! I tried to be the grouchy, high-brow critic but I must admit I often agree with him. It is very entertaining and few people can do great battle scenes like Peter Jackson. However, he has already done this all before. I feel like he's regressing or something. It's not quite George Lucas-bad but I hope he leaves the Tolkien world soon. I count myself as a fan of the original trilogy and though The Hobbit films are nowhere near as great, it is still splendid entertainment. I enjoyed myself immensely despite my misgivings. 

Le Grande Jeu (Jacques Feyder) ***1/2 - After he squanders a huge amount of money on his extravagant love, a young businessman is forced to leave the country and joins the French legion in North Africa where he meets a prostitute who remarkably looks like his love (Is she or isn't she?). I have to say that this film's protagonist is kind of unlikable and what he does in the conclusion of this film is frustrating. But despite that, the film still manages to get you to care for him and the ending is particularly haunting. It helps that the two women supporting him gives outstanding performances: Marie Bell who plays his love interest/s and Francoise Rosay who plays the wife of the owner of the hotel he stays in who's also an amateur fortune teller.

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