Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Seen Any Good Movies Lately?

I haven't. I'm beginning to think I've seen all the good ones and there's only a sea of crap out there. Got a recommendation? Please leave a comment. Thanks!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

12 Angry Men (1957) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s tension laced set piece from 1957, would be derided by talk radio as liberal claptrap if it were released today. The story of a lone juror (Henry Fonda) who seeks to impede a jury’s rush to judgment in a capital murder case, 12 Angry Men is a drama that grows organically from tiny seeds; seeds that 90 minutes later produce a harvest of shameful revelations. Through clever and telling details, Reginald Rose’s script strips away his characters’ thin veneer of civilization and exposes the racism and class warfare that lies beneath. With the fate of an accused murderer in the balance, each juror is forced to look into the dark mists of his own soul and ultimately issue a verdict; not just in this case but on the whole of humanity.

As a testament to the property’s enduring relevance, 12 Angry Men has been remade and rebooted several times over the years, both on film and on stage, including a padded, meandering Russian version in 2007, complete with a young Chechen defendant. The script originated as a teleplay in 1955, broadcast live as an installment of CBS’ Westinghouse Studio One, and has evolved into the status of a true classic. Now available in a handsome Criterion blu-ray, 12 Angry Men retains its riveting dramatic currents with new clarity and detail, and the film’s superb acting and flawless construction burst forth with unprecedented vividness.

The physicality of the production couldn't be simpler - twelve jurors sequestered at a conference table trying to reach a unanimous verdict – but that simplicity is deceptive. Through meticulous blocking and skillful performances, the scope of the story far exceeds its spatial confinements, and creates a dramatic web that encompasses the social spectrum. Through an impeccable ensemble cast, Lumet and Rose explore the dynamics of the political spectrum: the entrenched dogma of the extreme contrasted with malleable souls who simply go along for the ride. The script inverts its own logic and sets forth a series of seemingly impossible hurdles, all of which are overcome by one man who refuses to submit to intellectual laziness. Lumet’s frames grow increasingly tighter, eventually isolating each juror as his preconceptions and prejudices are swept aside. Soon, all each man has left is his own self interested acceptance or denial; the intellectually honest concede their errors, while the ideologues battle on with bilious spite. But the tides of change are irresistible, and even the most deep-seated hatreds are powerless against them.

12 Angry Men is an actor’s picture in the truest sense, its unrelenting pressures dependent on timing and technique. Lumet’s brilliant cast, including a few holdovers from the original TV broadcast, features a squadron of familiar faces. Established stars like Henry Fonda and Ed Begley freely mingle with relative unknowns who would go on to long careers in television and film. Over the course of the film, each actor is given his moment to shine, and in vignettes great and small there are no awkward or fumbled moments. Fonda, as thoughtful, empathetic Juror 8, acts as the film’s navigational moral compass; his intellectual cool providing a counterpoint that both infuriates and impresses his fellow deliberants. His polar opposite, Lee J. Cobb, delivers a pitch dark rendering as an authority-worshiper who can’t wait to slip the noose on the young Hispanic defendant; his thirst for vengeance driven more by personal failures than any desire for justice. The great Jack Warden adds another winning performance to his portfolio of regular guy slobs while Robert Webber, as a slick adman, provides the film’s scant comic relief. In a superb sequence, E.G. Marshall’s self-righteously pragmatic stock broker has his Road to Damascus moment when he fails a memory test administered by Fonda, opening a floodgate of second guessing by his fellow jurors.

Any analysis of Sidney Lumet’s directorial style – and his extraordinarily successful 60 year career – starts with great respect for actors, as evidenced by the whole-cloth fashioning of 12 Angry Men’s nameless characters. Some dominate while others recede into the background, yet it’s clear each actor is working from a tightly defined backstory. Their biographies rarely come into play during the narrative, but each man’s history and place in the world form vital building blocks to character. Yet, Rose and Lumet build beyond types, and their jurors emerge as fully human and fully believable; each man a product of unseen experiences held deep in the soul. These hidden layers give 12 Angry Men its pervasive sense of simmering contempt and suppressed violence, and elevate the film into an American classic. It’s a bare knuckle fight to the finish, with the sharp daggers of intellect and decency as the weapons of choice.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Le Week-End at The Grand Budapest Hotel

Le Week-End (2013) ✭✭

Don't be fooled by the smiling faces in the poster, and don’t rush out to the theater to see this feel-bad comedy. Wait for home video or better yet, skip it all together. Jim Broadband and Lindsay Duncan star as a couple who make a brief trip to Paris to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The film is marketed as a warm, romantic sort of comedy, but in actuality it’s 93 minutes of Broadbent and Duncan engaging in all-out emotional warfare, with every slight, insult and disappointment of their decades together aired out amid the iconic scenery of Paris. Jeff Goldblum has a small part as an old colleague of Broadbent’s and the habitual scenery chewer surprisingly comes off as a pleasant respite from the couple’s constant bitching. The film attempts to end on an upnote with an homage to a famous Godard film, but it’s way too little, too late. By then viewers will have decided that this miserable couple should have divorced long ago.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) ✭✭✭✭  

The Grand Budapest Hotel made me do something I hadn’t done at the cinema in a long time: laugh. I mean really laugh. Not just chortle at something stupid or snicker at detached hipster irony, but laugh out loud at stuff that was actually funny. The movie feels like a 1930s screwball comedy; appropriate since the majority of the film is set in that decade. The plot is essentially one long chase/caper scenario centering on Ralph Fiennes, as a dissolute maître d' attempting to claim a massive inheritance while fleeing the stroppy, monocle-clad remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A host of famous faces join in the fun, among them Jeff Goldblum (again), Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Adrian Brody, Tilda Swinton and the list goes on. Lea Seydoux has a small role as a chambermaid and my wife was surprised that she somehow kept her clothes on. I’ve never been a big fan of director Wes Anderson, but here he hits all the right notes. Enjoy your stay and please come back soon.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Serial Saturday Part 3: The Phantom (1943) ✭✭

Lee Falk’s The Phantom, created in 1936, was a precursor of the modern superhero concept. Essentially a hybrid of the Lone Ranger and Tarzan, The Phantom pioneered many pulp innovations, including the skin-tight union suits that have become the garment of choice for today’s battery of masked crime fighters. The Phantom’s jurisdiction, a mysterious African jungle rich in precious stones, valuable minerals and ravenous crocodiles, provides a groaning board of narrative possibilities. Over the years, The Purple Knight has battled pirates, poachers, headhunters, witch doctors and, most sinister of all, a number of multinational corporations.

This serial from Columbia Pictures was the first attempt to bring The Phantom to the screen and starred buff Tom Tyler as The Aubergine Avenger. Comprised of 15 chapters and clocking in at 5 hours, the production is a thorough immersion in all things related to The Ghost Who Walks and before it’s through you’ll be able to cite chapter and verse the complex history of the Legend in Lilac.

And you’ll need all 5 hours to figure out just what the heck is going on here, as the serial features not one, but two groups of villains, all competing for our hero’s time and attention. The Plum Protector (stop it! right now!) must also contend with renegade bushmen, surly jungle beasts, numerous pools of quicksand and a naïve band of explorers who always seem to get caught in the crossfire.

One group of baddies appear to be members of some sort of amateur mafia with designs on swiping priceless tribal artifacts. The other criminal enterprise is led by the evil Professor Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), who seeks to build a secret airstrip on land sacred to the natives. The exact purpose of this airstrip is not known, but it seems doubtful that tourists were clamoring to spend their precious vacations being eaten by tigers while drowning in quicksand. Tying this convoluted silliness together is some claptrap about an ancient treasure map scrawled on a shattered clay tablet. The majority of the map pieces have been recovered. But the really useful fragment, the one with “X” and all that, remains missing.

As a production company, Columbia was generally considered a cut above its main competitor, Republic Pictures, but neither outfit showered its respective serial divisions with lavish budgets. This production set in remote Africa would pose unique challenges and unintentionally create a bizarre and humorous geocultural mash-up.

Filmed at Beale’s Cut, a popular wilderness area near the confluence of Interstate 5 and Route 14 in Santa Clarita, Ca., the crew staged jungle scenes by augmenting the native vegetation with a few potted plants. The result is an arboreal aberration and the only spot on planet Earth where maple and palm freely intermingle.

Sets from old westerns were recycled as African villages and jungle settlements, making this corner of the Dark Continent look an awful lot like old-town Albuquerque. Even the characters’ names add to the confusion. The main local hustler is a bar proprietor named Singapore Smith which, last time I checked, was no where near Africa, but I concede does sound kind of exotic and cool.

The previously mentioned band of well-meaning scientists are guided by a group of sherpas who appear to be Mexican farmers pressed into service. Why gentlemen from Mexico would be leading an African expedition is anyone's guess, but it does account for the party's tendancy to get hopelessly lost in remote and perilous areas.

But most confusing of all are the tribesman, who look much more Samoan than African. Of course, this is usually the case when one takes overweight, white American actors and dresses them up in grass skirts and face paint, which is an accurate description of the wardrobe department’s efforts here. In fact, I can’t recall a single black actor being employed by this production. If I’m wrong I offer my abject apologies, but I really don’t have the energy to fast forward through the whole five hour shebang again and fact check my assertion.

To evaluate what the serial DOES have, one must start with the performance of Tyler as the Mauve Marauder (I warned you!!), and while his athletic build cuts a fine figure in heroic long johns, his Phantom comes off as a bit smug and snooty - the kind of guy who'd go to an amateur musical in Kansas City and then complain that it was much better on Broadway. The script doesn’t help Tyler out very much, as he often utters the equivalent of “Nothing can go wrong now” in a self-satisfied delivery, just before everything goes horribly wrong.

Despite moments of prissiness and lousy prognostication, The Phantom is exceptionally skilled at fisticuffs, which is a good thing since in every episode some miscreant attempts to kick his amethyst ass. Our hero generally does well in the early going, scoring with vigorous body/head combinations. But the Violet Vigilante (please, please stop) has a bit of a glass jaw, and just one punch from his opponent will send him reeling backwards and crashing into a dining room set. The primitive African huts in this production are oddly replete with such furnishings, and it’s a good thing too, since Tyler destroys enough tables and chairs here to keep the assembly line at Broyhill humming for months.

Accompanying The Phantom is his somewhat faithful dog Devil, a beast who seems bored with the entire endeavor. Devil doesn’t have much of an attention span, and often wanders off precisely when his owner needs him the most. Actually, Devil’s attitude is quite sensible if you think about it. Why should he rush in to fight a freaking tiger? The Phantom got himself into this mess…

Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of The Phantom. I always found his complex adventures difficult to follow in the comic strips. Probably had something to do with the fact that we only got the Sunday paper at our house, which meant I missed 6 out of every 7 installments. Still, I didn’t see anything here that caused me to reassess my opinion. After 5 hours with the Fuchia Firebrand I still found him odd, creepy and, in the realm of superheroes, squarely second-tier.

Join us next time when we discuss a leading light of the cape and tights crowd; a hero who is still packing movie theatres to this day. A crimefighter of such popularity that his street cred cannot be destroyed, no matter how lousy the serial….

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Past (2013) ✭✭✭✭1/2

Asghar Farhadi’s follow up to A Separation (2011) is another tale of family strife, this time set in Paris, as Iranian national Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns after a 4 year absence to finalize his divorce proceedings. There, he reunites with his estranged wife Marie-Ann (Bérénice Bejo) and her new boyfriend Samir (Tahar Rahim), who owns a dry-cleaning store. What Ahmad thinks will be a pro-forma legal process becomes much more complicated as he slowly learns the dark secrets of Samir and Marie-Ann’s courtship, and the real reason he’s been summoned to Paris.

As Ahmad enters the ramshackle house he shared with Marie-Ann all those years ago, Farhadi floods the screen with Ahmad’s bittersweet memories. Yet he accomplishes this not with flashbacks or any other gimmicks, but through mastery of mood and tiny, telling details. The children from Marie-Ann’s first marriage, who Ahmad helped to raise, are still there although young Léa (Jeanne Jestin) barely remembers him. More problematic is teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet) who mixes the typical rebellion of her age group with a deep and unspoken guilt that’s threatening to destroy her. Farhadi’s script follows a classical blueprint, with a new character or plot turn about every thirty minutes, which eventually embeds complex and heartbreaking angles into what, at first blush, appeared to be a very simple story.

Like A Separation, much of The Past takes place within the humble and cluttered confines of a family’s home and, as they did in A Separation, Farhadi and cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari build excellent visual interest and depth in very small spaces. The blu-ray looks nothing short of marvelous, giving viewers a primer on Fahdi’s technique of contrasting surfaces. His characters’ thick, nubby sweaters seem to sparkle with texture, while the Paris exteriors capture the brisk energy of the city’s wet, chilly streets. These visual details are not merely ornamental for, like Farhadi’s direction of actors, the smallest elements interlace and expand until both his characters and his viewers are trapped in a spinning maze of moral dilemmas. Eventually, we realize the overburdened Marie-Ann has selfishly created a mess she can’t clean up, and Ahmad’s slow fuse reaches the flash point.

Farhadi is becoming something of an Ozu for this rough and tumble new millennium, with sharply observed, understated dramas of families attempting to cope with the pressures and emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, of modern life. Part soap-opera, part detective story, The Past carefully constructs an enticing web of seemingly ordinary lives fraught with misunderstandings, deceits and deceptions. Is it as great as A Separation? Not quite, but The Past offers its own beguiling moments of insight and discovery as we watch hard working, well-meaning people make a complete hash of their lives.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Quickies for April 2014

The Wall (2012) ✭✭✭✭1/2

Meticulously produced and beautifully videographed, Julian Pölsler’s film is a spellbinding allegory with allusions to the Holocaust, feminism and humanity’s uneasy coexistence with the natural world. Martina Gedeck, who is always terrific in these moody dramas, gives a virtual one woman show as a vacationer who finds herself trapped in the wilderness by an invisible energy barrier spawned by an implied apocalypse. With many layers offering many interpretations, The Wall is one of those movies that stay with you for a long time.

The Hunt (2012) ✭✭✭

This disappointing Oscar nominee has been derided for animal cruelty, but it's also ultimately not very nice to its human viewers. The acting is great, the videography terrific and the pacing just about perfect. The problem is writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, who approaches a controversial subject with noncommittal wishy-wash. Now I don't need every aspect of a story spelled out for me, but if you're going to do a plot driven film that contains lots of emotional manipulation, you'd better offer some sort of catharsis by the last act. As evidenced by the alternative ending in the supplements, Vinterberg had no clear idea of the film he wanted to make. He hooks the viewer with a well-constructed narrative bait, then through lapses in logic and intentional vagueness, never follows through with the film's potential. 4 stars for watchability. 2 stars for completely copping out.

The Lone Ranger (2013) ✭

Simply stated, one of the worst movies ever made.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Arrivederci To All That: The Great Beauty (2013) ✭✭✭✭✭

Living up to its title, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) is a modern masterwork of visual and aural aesthetics that slowly builds brick-by-brick a mesmerizing mosaic of time and place. The place is present day Rome, where a new kind of decadence threatens the eternal city once again. Amid its famous landmarks and towering historical glories, the streets of Rome are also the site of an unlikely symbiosis; where awestruck tourists from around the globe coexist with a bored upperclass who’ve become comfortably numb to the hallowed splendor that surrounds them.

The time is the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (wonderfully played by Toni Servillo), an aging playboy whose youthful brilliance as a novelist has been doused by too many late nights of partying and hobnobbing with the city’s vacuous social elite. To borrow from Tom Wolfe, Jep Gambardella is a Man in Full.  Secure financially and emotionally, he has reached a point where he no longer listens to his detractors, and easily sees through the hypocritical veils of others. His last remaining critic, and by far his harshest, is himself; a tiny inner voice that chides him for not doing more with his talent. Over the course of the film this gnawing murmur will grow to a thunderous timbre.

Sorrentino doesn’t so much tell the story as gently coax it out of Rome’s silent stone arches and garish neon nightlife. The film is composed of moments, often seemingly unconnected, that amuse, mystify and occasionally befuddle. The Great Beauty courageously follows no narrative map, yet its meanderings and musings arrive at their stations in precise accordance to a perfectly paced schedule. In this city that has stood for nearly three millennia, legions of nuns from the Vatican’s darkest corridors scurry about in the warming sun, while echoes of ethereal choirs greet yet another lazy afternoon. A Japanese tourist, overcome by the grandeur, blissfully drops dead on the spot while a nude performance artist rams her head into an ancient viaduct in rebellion of Rome’s permanence. Sorrentino’s frequent allusions to Fellini both enliven his film and sharpen his satirical knife, yet this current incarnation of La Dolce Vita is rife with conundrums and quandaries unimaginable in 1960.

From his lavish balcony that looks down on the Colosseum and its blood-soaked history, Jep Gambardella reflects on an existential emptiness that’s equally beyond his experience. The Great Beauty not only deals with an ageless city, but also the ages of man, and Gambardella has reached a point where the losses are starting to mount. Along with security and freedom has come the realization that time is growing short. Funerals for Jep’s past and current lovers have become a common occurrence and, through repetition, he has the hollow words of the condolence line down pat. But a miraculous encounter with a latter-day Sister Theresa grants him a new perspective and a new immersion in a sea of teenage love he has never truly forgotten. The Great Beauty will not be forgotten either; its ebb and flow of images and imaginings revealing even greater truths as dawn nears and flocks of birds fill the gleaming sky.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Life in Posters: Ingmar Bergman

A Lesson in Love (1953)

Wild Strawberries (1957)

The Virgin Spring (1960)

The Silence (1963)

Persona (1966)

Shame (1969)

A Passion (1970)

Scenes From a Marriage (1973)

Cries and Whispers (1973)

Face to Face (1976)

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Fanny & Alexander (1983)

Saraband (2003)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Persona (1966) on Blu-ray

Persona deals with universal themes that had deeply fascinated Bergman ever since his transition from interpreter to auteur in the early 1950s. The silence of God, and man’s floundering follies in response, is a major conceptual catalyst, surging through Persona’s bleak gray skies like a web of jangled nerves. What makes the film unique is its avant garde trappings – particularly the famous psychotropic opening sequence – which at times makes Persona seem much more Godard than Bergman. Indeed, during the filming of Persona the French New Wave was at the height of its influence; an influence to which even moody Swedish minimalists were apparently not immune.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lake Tahoe (2008) ✭✭✭1/2

If you saw Fernando Eimbcke’s dryly amusing Duck Season, then you know what to expect: leisurely pacing, naturalism on steroids and performances so understated they border on the comatose. Set in a seedy beach town on the Yucatan peninsula, this outing again features young Diego Cantano as Juan, who has just rammed his mom’s car into a telephone pole, and his meandering efforts to have it repaired early one Saturday morning.

As Juan ambles the town’s crumbling streets, his quest takes on Arthurian overtones, as he encounters a variety of oddballs who may, or may not, be able to help him. An aging mechanic with one foot in the grave (Hector Herrera) dispatches Juan to an auto parts store run by a young woman (Daniela Valentine), complete with a perpetually crying baby, who wouldn’t know a spark plug from a tire.

She suggests Juan enlist the aid of her friend David (Juan Carlos Lara), a young man much more interested in Bruce Lee movies and NunChuk flinging than auto repair. As Juan begins to despair for his situation, he makes a quick trip home – actually nothing in this film is quick- where it is apparent something is seriously amiss, and our first hint that there is a hidden, underlying story to this seemingly random, and rambling, journey.

But, through the course of this long and frustrating day, we are able to piece together the life altering events that led to Juan’s accident, and we are filled with a surprising sense of poignancy for this young man and his family. Yet Lake Tahoe is primarily a comedy, in the sense that Jim Jarmusch’s films are comedies, and it’s clear that Eimbcke and Jarmusch are kindred spirits behind the camera.

There is something in virtually every scene that will produce a chuckle, or at least a grin, and the entire film is infused with a uniquely subtle comedic sensibility. It will be fun to see where Eimbcke’s next goofy misadventure takes us.

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