Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Prince Avalanche

Mark Rudd, Emile Hirsch   w/d David Gordon Green

We follow two guys on a road crew in central Texas re-painting yellow lines after a devastating fire. They're both losers, but each in his own way. One's stupid and seems to know it; the other is too but doesn't.

Slow-moving and quiet in tone. Not funny, or even amusing. I guess it's brave to make an entire film of boring losers. I guess... They clash, fight, bond. At the end one's lost his woman but neither has changed at all. These two will be losers for life. There're plenty like them out there. Plenty. So what?


The Black Camel

Warner Oland, Bela Lugosi

Charlie Chan film from 1931. Pretty early in the talkie era, this was stilted and primitive. BL was quite effective as a red herring. The mystery was complex enough that I had trouble following it in the second half.

Chan's aphorisms were a hoot...far too similar to the 'listen grasshopper' pearls David Carradine gave us in the 70's to be taken seriously. I do wish they had chosen a Chinese actor though. Casting a Swede just doesn't cut it folks...


Monday, December 30, 2013

Kick Ass 2

Chloe Moretz

Silly bordering on too-stupid-to-watch. For a while. Then it crossed over...

For me at 45 min.



Spain    w/d  Pablo Berger

This was the fourth time in a year that I've seen this film on the big screen. It is one of a half dozen films that have had such a strong emotional/aesthetic effect on me in my lifetime.

It's such a shame that it failed to find an audience in this country. I guess after The Artist people felt...well I've seen a silent film and don't need to see another. But this film was not just a pleasant novelty. It re-interprets a folk tale, re-imagines it, adapts the Grimm Brothers story to 1920's Spain, centers around bullfighting and brings in all the jealousy, hatred, opportunism that makes such a story resonate across generations.

The cinematography, framing and camera work were superb. The two leads couldn't have been better cast or shot. Ditto the supporting characters, sets, musical accompaniment. This, to me, is one of the great works of world cinema...it should move people from all cultures, all times.

Each time I've watched it I've been deeply moved...this time I quietly wept throughout, as did the friends I invited to watch with me. I've no doubt I'll see it again...and again...whenever I can muster a group of friends I think might appreciate this wonderful work.


A Hijacking


Outstanding film. A Danish cargo ship is hijacked in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We follow the months-long negotiations to free the ship and crew...from the perspective of the managers back in Denmark and the sailors stuck on the ship with the armed pirates.

Many harrowing, tense scenes. The balance between the two stories was well handled. Over time the conditions aboard the ship deteriorated, the men became listless and enervated. Meanwhile in the corporate boardroom the execs suffered their own price for this drama.

The entire thing was intelligently handled...with a takeaway being that all these peoples' lives would be changed from this ordeal.


People of the Feather


Routine doc with some beautiful landscape photography. The subject is the plight of an Inuit people living on the shores of Hudson Bay who depend on the eider duck for just about everything. Their waters are warming because of dams that are being built to provide carbon-free electricity to Canada and the US. Because of physics this is killing the ducks so they want it to stop.

Good luck with that. It does point out that no matter what is done, even for the best of reasons, someone will be hurt.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Nat Hentoff


Fine treatment of America's best, and best-known, jazz critic. He's also championed civil rights and other worthy lefty causes his whole life. This film serves as a nice recognition of his work for the last 60 years.


War Witch


A 12 yo girl in francophone West Africa is impressed into a rebel army...and there her troubles begin. The film is a 90 minute litany of the horrors that can be inflicted on a young girl. She suffers...we suffer watching her tribulations...and then the movie ends.

Other than displaying graphically man's potential for inhumanity I couldn't see any point to this film. Yup...some people get a really shitty deal. Got it. But I knew that already (remember Babi Yar?) and this film didn't add anything fresh. I'm past the point when just watching somebody suffer a terrible injustice is enough to make a successful film.

That being said this was well done. Good hand-held camera work. It didn't help that the lead spent most of the film mute, looking at the ground. Except during the requisite birth scene.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Great Beauty

Italy   d/  Paolo Sorrentino

A stunning film...as beautifully photographed as anything I've ever seen. Constant, fluid camera work, brilliant framing, editing...this film is a technical marvel. Even the crawl is run over a slow trip down the Tiber. And the theme is an intelligent examination of the values of modern-day affluent society.

At 65 the writer/journalist protagonist  gets an emotional jolt which causes him to reflect on the superficial life he has elected...nightclubs, parties, seducing women. Wry commentary on contemporary society, at least among the monied class, abounds.

A bit too long for my bum...maybe two hours instead of 142 minutes would have been more merciful...but nothing was superfluous or unnecessary. This is one of the great works of world cinema.


Captains Courageous

Spencer Tracy, Freddie Bartholomew

MGM's adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story. A 10 yo spoiled brat falls off an ocean liner and is picked up by a fishing schooner out of Gloucester, Mass. He is condemned to stay with the vessel for the three-month season. Not surprisingly, he learns some valuable life lessons.

This film from the height of MGM's dynasty years holds up quite well. The working class guys are over-cooked of course...Lionel Barrymoore in particular does a very poor job with a New England accent/demeanor. And for a half hour I had a lot of trouble accepting ST as an illiterate Portuguese fisherman. But young Freddie was captivating and his transition from jerk to OK kid worked. His tearful reaction to the death of his mentor was very moving.

One of the better movies to come out of LB Mayer's empire.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara

Odd sort of low-key thriller. To my eye CA's least effective role to date. His Bobcat-like whiney vocals made his character very unsympathetic. He was a Clyde Barrow wannabe without Warren Beatty's looks or charm. Who in the world would fall in love with this creep? And who would hold on to that attachment while he rotted in prison?

Rooney, I guess. She too was very subdued here...to the point of near-invisibility. Even though she was on screen she faded before your eyes into the nondescript production design. An aged Keith Carradine provided a semblance of character but even he was subdued.

Don't know what was intended here. The story held me but after it ended it began fading in my mind like the scruffy wallpaper used in the sets.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Game

Michael Douglas, Sean Penn   d/ David Fincher

Fast pacing, sharp editing saved this completely preposterous story from the trash heap. An over-privileged 'investment banker' gets a birthday gift like no other: the chance to participate in a game which involves many life-threatening activities to himself and many others. To what purpose? Hard to say. Alleviate boredom, vary the routine of a Master of the Universe, get back in touch with his inner child...?

Because of the pacing it was easy to follow along with the story. It was only when we got to the happy ending that this Rube Goldberg construct collapsed of its own weight. Fun to watch but forgettable.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

The War Game

England   w/d Peter Watkins

This is the BBC-produced mock-doc that was so explosive (sorry) that it was banned in Britain for twenty years. It tried to answer the question: what would it be like if England got involved in a nuclear scrape? And the answer was...pretty fuckin horrible.

Watkins used a doc style which was extremely effective and became his signature technique for forty years...culminating in the superb La Commune (2001).

This was a landmark film which still brings a chill. It was one-upped in the 80's by Threads which made it as clear as possible that nuke war meant the end of the world as we've known it. Good thing we've since gotten rid of all the nukes, innit?


For a Woman


Two brothers, separated by WW2, re-unite in the late 40's on opposite ends of the political spectrum. One is a mindless apparatchik, the other a secret nazi-killer. They clash over the former's movie-star beautiful wife.

Well done production was so similar to so many other films covering this period that I found it impossible to keep my attention on it. Nothing clunked here...but...could we move on? Please? Yup, nazis were bad. And yup, there was a lot of societal disruption in Europe in the forties. Got it.



Thursday, December 19, 2013

Liberal Arts

amerindie   Elizabeth Olsen,  Josh Radnor

Enjoyable low-key story of a thirty-something struggling free of his adolescence with the help of a pretty, spirited college girl. JR is pretty blank here; EO has gravitas and star quality which blows him off the screen.

Film features an embarrassing role/performance by Richard Jenkins which brings the whole project down. Another supporting character played by Alison Janney contributes to the overall sense of funk. The film needed more laughs, more play, more life. There was even a character who attempts suicide, inspired by David Foster Wallace.

In spite of its dispiriting tone I found myself caring for these people. Why? Who knows. Maybe because they were readers.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The World's End

England   Simon Pegg, Nick Frost

The third in the trilogy which deconstructs, re-imagines standard film genres; the others were Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. This one too starts as a normal sort of film and then leaps off the rails, carving its own path through our consciousness.

These guys are clever and funny. Laughs abound here. Pegg's character was really obnoxious in this film and hard to take. Here we were watching a group of middle-aged men getting drunk at the behest of an apparent madman. I was just about to shut it off when...bang!...the universe took a tilt. What came next was unexpected and unpredictable. Remarkably enough it turned into a saving-the-earth sci-fi flick. Mucho kudos, guys. Never grow up...


Tuesday, December 17, 2013


England   Peter O'Toole

I wish he hadn't done this one. O'Toole had a marvelous career but this left a sour taste. He played an aged thespian who behaved in a pig-like manner with his pals and gloms on to a young woman...not for sex since they make it very clear he was impotent...but to smell her, fondle her, absorb her youthful essence.

Even though POT had star quality he was indistinguishable in this scenario from a garden variety DOM. Too bad. I'll try to forget this one and try to remember El Laurent instead.


The Hunt

Denmark   Mads Mikkelsen

Gripping story of a divorced kindergarten teacher who is accused of molesting a little girl. It's all based on a misunderstanding but skillfully traces the kind of hysteria we've seen in so many real-life cases (cf Capturing the Friedmans). Once accused he becomes a pariah in his small town...he is physically attacked, his dog is killed, etc.

The film works because MM, who is in every scene, pulls us in to his dilemma...what can you say or do that will free you from this stigma? Even when the girl (who was outstanding...on a level with Victoria Thivisol in Ponette) retracts her story no one believes her. All men in the audience sit there wondering what we would do? For a while I was impatient that MM didn't protest more loudly. But I realized it didn't matter what he said...no one believed him.

I had a real problem with the last ten minutes of the film. Two things happened...both of which I thought were ill-conceived. It didn't ruin the film but took away from the overall excellence.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Zig Zag Kid


Fun bit of cinematic whimsey. A 12 yo boy, facing his bar mitzvah in two days is given an assignment which will make him the greatest detective in the world.

Film combines slapstick, action/adventure, magical realism and winning characters into a delightful package which should warm the heart of any film buff out there. The story is preposterous, of course, but so what? It takes you on a rollicking ride, the complexity of which is made clear when you watch the clips shown over the crawl.

This was a real treat. Very clever.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shotgun Stories

Michael Shannon   w/d Jeff Nichols

Nice little indie. Set in Arkansas the story deals with a family feud that plays out in what seems like slow motion. The women seem normal but the men are all slow-walking, slow-talking, slow-thinking louts. Events play out one measured step at a time with a calm, inexorable inevitability.

Performances were subdued. I got the sense that Nichols tried, and succeeded, in capturing the tone of life in his native Arkansas among a certain class of folk, where it's too damn hot to move any faster or think any harder. Nice job.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Me Without You

Michele Williams, Anna Friel

This film traces the troublesome relationship between two young women, from pre-teen solidarity to contentious young adulthood. AF was seriously messed up and continually undermined MW's character for neurotically selfish reasons. MW was sweet, passive, intimidated and dominated by her 'friend.'

Well played and shot but very aggravating to watch. I kept wishing MW would speak up for herself, be a bit more assertive...but that would be a different film. Realistic, courageous performances by both leads; they were willing to look scuzzy and act badly. Credit to them but no fun to watch.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Monsoon Wedding

Mira Nair

Wonderful film. Colorful, sharply drawn characters, an intelligent, knowing peek into another culture's practices and beliefs. We witness the five-day wedding celebration of upper-middle class Delhi Indians...where the wedding planner has a cell phone and eats marigolds.

There are personal conflicts, group dancing and celebration, airing of old grievances, nascent love, infidelity...the warp and woof of life. Beautifully photographed with great music. Kudos.


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Middle of Nowhere

Amerindie   Eva Amurri, Anton Yelchin

Very sweet little film largely about the trials of growing up fatherless (suicide) in a small town. Two sisters wrestle, sometimes successfully, with universal problems.

EA is Susan Sarandon's daughter, who also appears. Together they have several juicy scenes. EA has a comfortable, natural air about her. She and Yelchin really stand out here....carrying the drama effortlessly.

Intelligent, well-written and shot. A fine low-budget production.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Free the Mind


Pretty lame no-budget doc on using meditation to treat PTSD. It's a good idea but before you try to make a feature-length doc on the subject you're gonna need more material. The project came across as well-meaning but not ready for prime time.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Closet


Silly French comedy. A corporate accountant is about to be fired for general dweebness. His neighbor persuades him to try and pass as a homosexual...he suddenly gets cache, is seen as cool by co-workers and family.

Some good laughs in here and a wonderful cast (Auteuil, Depardieu, Rochefort) kept this from falling into asinine. Given the topic that was quite a feat. Amusing fluff.


Saturday, December 7, 2013

TWA Flight 800


These folks put together a convincing case that the plane was shot down with three missiles. Strong testimony offered on screen by the bitter, side-tracked veteran investigators of the NTSB.

The interesting part of the story is...who has worked to keep this from the public? It's always the cover-up that gives it away. Once again it was mostly the FBI which took complete control of the investigation...disappearing crucial evidence, keeping NTSB people in the dark. They had some help from the CIA, which provided a misleading cartoon that appeared on all networks.

The question unaddressed was a big one: who shot this plane down, and why? Unlikely we'll ever know. Some project by the bad guys. Another brick in the wall.


Friday, December 6, 2013

17 Girls


The leader of a tight-knit group of high school girls gets pregnant and persuades many of the others to do it too...so they can stay together in an ill-conceived world of togetherness. Parents, teachers are bewildered and at a loss. Eventually 15 girls succumb. Adapted from a real incident.

These girls were rebelling against what they saw as the stultifying world of the adults. But their rebellion was idiotic...they knew nothing about parenting or what that level of responsibility brought. They were infused with ideals, dreams. This stunt was what served to bring them in tune with reality.

Concise, well done film. All the girls were good...their acting naturalistic, their characters diverse.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Way Way Back

Steve Carrell, Toni Colette

Formulaic but ultimately successful story of a shy 14 yo boy who has been dragged by his mother and her new boyfriend to his beach cottage for the summer. Intra-family conflict is the name of this game: the protagonist uses mobility to find refuge in a water park with a man/boy manager.

Several major scenes clunked badly (breakdance, water tube) but somehow it didn't seem to matter. When it ended I found they had pushed the right buttons...I found myself touched...in spite of my best judgement.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013


France/Belgium, etc   Emmanuelle Beart, Rufus Sewell

A European couple lose a son in the 2005 tsunami, perhaps see him in a video 6 mos. later, engage with a gangster and set off into forbidden territory in Burma to rescue him.

Very stylishly filmed and solid performances couldn't overcome the sameness of this story. Paled in comparison to The Impossible last year. There the obsessive driven mom captured our hearts...here she seemed demented.

Beautiful locations and one splendid scene on the beach with paper hot-air thingies wafting into the night. Nice try...no cigar.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013



This film focused on the dramatic evisceration of Detroit by the big three auto manufacturers. It could have (should have) been much harder-hitting but this team wasted about half the screen time with useless artsy-fartsy shots...back-lit, no light, etc.

They should have decided what they wanted to do here. Showing off your cine chops is OK in a calling card reel. In a serious doc on an important, world-changing process...not so smart. Also, spending all your time with the same people evidences a lack of industriousness.

But my main complaint with this doc is the complete lack of understanding of the financial factors, the decisions and the deciders who are causing this phenomenon. It's all presented as if this all just happened. Not helpful.


Monday, December 2, 2013

A Simple Life

Hong Kong   Andy Lau

And a simple movie. Simple but not insignificant. A woman who has served as a maid for 60 years to a family has a stroke and announces she wants to retire and live in an old folks home. She is tended to by the last son living in HK. He has taken her ministrations for granted all his life. Now, when the table is turned, he returns the loving care she deserves but never expected.

A wonderful film; a tribute to decency, kindness, selflessness...an exploration of a kind of love uncommon today...particularly in Hong Kong with its money-uber-alles mentality. The lead - played by Deannie Yip - was superb. Her character radiated caring and a kind of benign stoicism...someone who always wanted to do for others, no matter their faults and refused attention to her needs. She epitomized the buddhist ideal...a truly enlightened person.

This film is an unexpected gem.