Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

* * * *

Director: Vittorio De Sica
Starring: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola

Despite having been a movie blogger for going on 8 years, and a movie buff for considerably longer, I've somehow never gotten around to seeing The Bicycle Thief (also known as Bicycle Thieves) until just recently. Even though it's one of the major works of the Italian neorealism movement, not to mention a work that is hailed as one of the greatest of all time, I just never found the time to sit down and watch it until now. My mistake, I have no excuse, but I can now confirm for myself that it truly is one of the greatest movies ever made. A beautiful, heartbreaking piece of post-WWII work, The Bicycle Thief is a movie that every film fan should see - and probably sooner than I did.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Ghost Writer (2010)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Roman Polanski
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams
Country: United Kingdom/France/Germany

Any number of perfectly competent directors probably could have taken the story of The Ghost Writer, based on the novel “The Ghost” by Robert Harris, and made a pretty nifty thriller out of it - it has so many elements in place for success just on a basic story level that I think it would be difficult to screw this up. That said, if it only had a “competent” director, then it would merely be an entertaining little potboiler. In the hands of a masterful director like Roman Polanski, it becomes something far greater, something which is still greatly entertaining, but also terrifically artful. Though it could never be given points for subtlety in terms of the real life figures on which some of its characters are based, it’s nevertheless an expertly crafted film where the sinister lurks at every edge.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Movies About Immortality

#5: Highlander

There can only be one - and the fact that most people don't have to have seen Highlander to know that just goes to show how deeply it has become rooted in pop culture despite being considered a "cult" film. This tale of immortals who must engage in a battle royale until only one remains is inherently a little bit silly, but it's also pretty damn entertaining.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Series Review: The Fast and the Furious

It's sort of funny, when you think about it, that a film series which is built on a premise made for mindless testosterone has become a series as defined by its sincerity as by its sublime ridiculousness. It started from a place of, "I live my life a quarter mile at a time," and over a decade and a half, has come to a place of "I don't have friends; I have family," and has managed to do so in a way that feels totally earned and without sacrificing the series' original reason for being. If the markings of a successful film series are consistency, developing a rich history and personal mythology, and managing to continue getting not just bigger, but better, then The Fast and the Furious may very well be the best action franchise ever. This isn't to say that the movies aren't kind of dumb; it's just that they're the kind of dumb that's fun as hell.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Last Stand (2013)

* *

Director: Kim Jee-woon
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Have I been watching movies lately that bear any resemblance to The Last Stand? Not really. Did Netflix think I would think The Last Stand is good? It did not. Am I an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan? Outside of The Terminator movies, not particularly (though I do love it when he shows up in movies with names like "Gordy Brewer" or, as in this one, "Ray Owens"). So naturally Netflix recommended this 2013 Schwarzenegger return to acting vehicle. Was it worth the time? Eh, it had its moments, though it never really gets a handle on the tone and its split storyline (only one half of which it's really invested in) is a lot busier than it needs to be.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: Winter Sleep (2014)

* * * *

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen, Demet Akbag

Sympathy for the 1 percent. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Palme d'Or winning Winter Sleep is the story of a man who has everything - education, wealth, power, and all the typical markings that go along with them - except the one thing that might actually make him happy: the adulation of others. Instead he is quietly despised and doesn't seem to understand how his self-absorption, arrogance, and inability to empathize with other people make it impossible for those around him to embrace him the way he imagines he deserves to be embraced. Winter Sleep is an intimate tragedy played out on an epic scale, and though its 196 minute running time may seem daunting, it's a film which is easy to become absorbed in as its world is so perfectly realized and its protagonist so fascinating.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review: Big Eyes (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz

Big Eyes, which is perhaps the least "Tim Burton-y" movie Burton has ever made (though a strong argument could be made for the whimsy-less Planet of the Apes remake), starts so strong that I found myself baffled by the rather lackluster reception it received when it was released theatrically in December. The first act of the film is so strong that it genuinely felt like the film was unfairly sold short, if not exactly "maligned," perhaps as a result of being released during the part of the year when everything is expected to be a masterpiece; and then the rest of the film happened, and suddenly I understood. It's not that Big Eyes is a bad movie - it's perfectly fine - it's just that it lays down the foundation to actually do something with its subject and then seems to lose its nerve and falls back on genre tropes and dashes of wackiness before puttering to its conclusion.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review: Danny Collins (2015)

* * *

Director: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Christopher Plummber, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner

If it had been released at pretty much any other time of year, I don't know that I would have enjoyed Danny Collins as much as I ultimately did. It's the sort of low in ambition, high in easy sentiment, middle of the road half comedy, half drama that I don't typically have a ton of patience for, but whether it's the dearth of new releases out at the moment, the right mood on my part, or the film's relaxed charm and the fact that it puts on no airs, but this Al Pacino vehicle won me over pretty quickly. It helps that, though the film has its share of stock/cookie cutter elements, it resists (sort of, but certainly to a greater degree than you have any reason to expect it will) delivering the mushy, hugs all around type ending that films like this tend to demand.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

* * *

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain

J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year is a film about a man who wants to be good in a profession that demands he be corrupt, who wants to keep his hands clean even as they are continuously pulled down into the mud. It is an exceedingly handsome looking film, anchored by a terrific performance by Oscar Isaac playing a complex man at war on all sides - so why does it feel so inert? Chandor's previous film (and only his second directorial effort), All Is Lost, managed to be as dynamic as it was minimalist, stripping away everything right down to the dialogue, but even though A Most Violent Year has more meat wrapped around its bones, it still manages to feel just a bit hollow. It's a competently made, sometimes even compelling film, but its impact just isn't very deep.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

21st Century Essentials... The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
Country: United States

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. But who, exactly, benefits from the legend? Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, adapted from the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, is about men living in the shadow of legend, benefiting and suffering from it in nearly equal measure. It is a visually and narratively stunning film, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of celebrity and on the romanticized view of outlaws which transforms killers into folk heroes, the story of two men seemingly locked in place by the demands of folklore and marching towards their joined fate. It is a wonderful, poetic film. Naturally it was abandoned in theaters by its distributor, yet another example of Hollywood studios not understanding that the gems they seek are already in their possession.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Second Generation Hollywood Stars

#5: Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie was a star almost the moment she stepped in front of a camera, making her mark in several television productions before moving permanently to film, winning an Oscar before she turned 25. Since then Jolie's career has had some ups and downs but she remains a star and, assuming that Jon Voight continues to make... "colorful" statements in the press, by the time her career is over she may very well end up eclipsing her famous father as the most revered star in her family.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: Wild (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring: Reese Witherspoon

When the nominations for the biggest awards started being announced earlier this year, many of the articles that I read which focused on the general lack of diversity in Hollywood storytelling singled out Wild as the sort of great female-driven film that was being ignored and left behind by awarding groups whose membership comprised primarily of white men. Not having seen the film at that point, I didn't really know how valid that criticism was, and having now seen it, I'm somewhat perplexed. Wild is not a great movie, let alone a great movie about women. It's a fine movie and it features a fairly meaty leading role for a woman (in this case Reese Witherspoon, Oscar nominated for it), but it really never rises to the level of greatness as a film, and when it comes to its depiction of women it's never quite as progressive as it seems to want to take credit for, and actually embraces some fairly tired cultural ideas about women and their value within society.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Review: Death Proof (2007)

* * *

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson

Death Proof may be the least, and the least loved, of Quentin Tarantino's features as a director, but it's obvious in every frame of the film that he had a blast making it. The joy of creation that shines through it is enough to make much of Death Proof entertaining as hell, although there are stretches that can be frustrating as hell, too, with Tarantino's customary self-indulgence feeling more draggy than exhilarating. In comparison to the director's other works this is a trifle of a film, but this slick little genre piece, which was part of a collaborative double feature experiment with director Robert Rodriguez, is a fun diversion that still manages to be more artful than a lot of what comes and goes from the cineplex on any given weekend.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ten Years Later... Sin City (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba

True confession time. Until getting ready to write this piece, I had never actually seen Sin City in its entirety, but only in bits and pieces. Having now watched it from beginning to end, I can officially confirm something that I've always suspected: I hate this movie. I hate it on its own merits for its repugnant attitudes, and I hate it because it's been elevated in some circles to the level of a masterwork of genius simply because it looks kind of cool and has the audacity to unapologetically wallow in the cesspool of its own misogyny and self-satisfied machismo. Don't get me wrong, I can understand how, in 2005 and before the effect of its visuals could be diminished by time and imitators, the film could seem dazzling enough to distract from how ugly it is on a thematic level; but I don't really understand how it is that the bloom hasn't yet fallen off the rose when the film in question is so empty and gross.