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Monday, December 5, 2016

Zootopia (2016)

A female rabbit (Ginnifer Goodwin) has ambitions to be the first bunny in the Zootopia police department. She achieves her dream but as the larger animals on the police force don't take her seriously, she must prove herself. When a major case of 14 missing mammals presents itself, she has her chance to prove her mettle. From the Walt Disney studios, this isn't hand drawn animation but computer generated animation but it's still quite sweet and charming. Its obvious parallels to human racism and stereotyping is quite in your face but that's the whole point of the film, isn't it? Life lessons in the form of fables go as far back as Aesop and this colorful adventure continues the tradition. Both children and adults should find much to enjoy in this colorful example of state of the art animation. It doesn't really break any new ground either in animation or storytelling so its universal praise seems a bit much but one can't deny it's a treat. With the voices of Jason Bateman (a fox), Idris Elba (a buffalo), J.K. Simmons (a lion), Octavia Spencer (an otter), Bonnie Hunt (a rabbit), Shakira (a gazelle), Jenny Slate (a sheep)  and Nate Torrence (a cheetah). 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Silence (2016)

In 17th century Japan, two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) go to Japan to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) who they fear has committed apostasy after being tortured during Japan's "cleansing" of Christians from their culture. Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo, Martin Scorsese's latest film may be the most austere look at religious faith since Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. One has to admire Scorsese for his commitment to making this obvious labor of love since it has no commercial (as in box office) value whatsoever. It questions faith and one's commitment to one's faith. Does God really want us to suffer for our faith when we have the ability to alleviate that suffering? How do we deal with God's silence? Are we arrogant to march into another culture and tell them their Gods are false and ours is the true God? What does martyrdom achieve? While ultimately the film comes down on the side of faith, the challenges it proposes are valid. At 2 hours and 40 minutes, that's a lot of suffering to sit through and like SCHINDLER'S LIST and 12 YEARS A SLAVE, frankly it's not a film I'd care to sit through again. Kudos to Rodrigo Prieto's (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) handsome if bleak cinematography. With Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds and Issey Ogata.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Monster Calls (2016)

A disturbed young boy (Lewis MacDougall) raised by a single mother (Felicity Jones, THEORY OF EVERYTHING) must deal with her dying of cancer. He is helped through this process by a tree monster (Liam Neeson) who offers him three stories to this end. The fourth story must be provided by the boy. Directed by J.A. Bayona (THE IMPOSSIBLE) from the novel by Patrick Ness, who adapted his book for the screen. It's difficult to tell what audience the movie is meant for. It seems rather sophisticated for the pre-teen audience who might be attracted to it but it seems rather simplistic and obvious for an adult audience. Still, for anyone who's ever had to deal with the pain, anger and helplessness of watching a loved one with a long lingering death, the movie has the sting of recognition. Indeed, for anyone who's been there, done that, the movie may only open wounds. The acting is impeccable from young MacDougall, Jones, Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother and Neeson whose powerful voice brings a depth to the CGI creation. With Geraldine Chaplin and Toby Kebbell.

Chiisai Ouchi (aka The Little House) (2014)

Set in Japan during the period 1931-1945. As Japan slowly but surely marches toward war, a married woman (Takako Matsu) and a younger man (Hidetaka Yoshioka) engage in an illicit affair that can't end well. But the story is told from the perspective of the household's naive young maid (Haru Kuroki). But it does't end there as their affair will have a far reaching effect on those who live after them. Based on the novel by Kyoko Nakajima and directed by Yoji Yamada (TWILIGHT SAMURAI), this is an incredibly lovely film. Slightly reminiscent of ATONEMENT (2007), it's a rich and detailed period piece framed by a contemporary narrative. The present day story has a more natural look to it while the period story is beautifully shot by Masashi Chikamori in vivid colors and amber glows in what appears to be on a sound stage, even its exteriors which gives it a slightly stylized "old movie" quality. Yamada emphasizes this by the discretion in portraying the affair which is played out off screen without any sex or love scenes. I'm frustrated that I can't do the film justice verbally because so much of the film's art is in the details rather than the narrative. But if you're interested in quality cinema, this should not be missed. The lovely score is by Joe Hisaishi (HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE). With Takataro Kataoka, Satoshi Tsumabuki and Chieko Baisho.

Friday, December 2, 2016

I Tre Volti Della Paura (aka Black Sabbath) (1963)

Three tales of horror and the supernatural from director Mario Bava: in THE TELEPHONE, a young woman (Michele Mercier) receives threatening phone calls. In THE WURDALACK, a family is threatened by vampires and in DROP OF WATER, a nurse's (Jacqueline Pierreux) greed brings a ghostly revenge. I watched the Italian version which is different than the American version is many ways. While I miss hearing Boris Karloff's voice in THE WURDALACK where he's dubbed into Italian, THE TELEPHONE is altered significantly in the U.S. version. The lesbian references have been eradicated and the motive behind the phone calls changed. In both versions, the Italian subtitles don't always match the English dubs. It's not one of Bava's best films as these are all about a half hour in length which doesn't give him much time to develop atmosphere or character but it's still an impressive horror anthology. My favorite of the three is THE TELEPHONE followed by DROP OF WATER and lastly, THE WURDALACK which is usually chosen as the best of the three. The Italian score is by Roberto Nicolosi and the U.S. by Les Baxter. With Mark Damon, Susy Andersen, Lidia Alfonsi and Massimo Righi. 

The Maids (1975)

Two housemaids, Solange (Glenda Jackson) and Claire (Susannah York) who are also sisters, engage in ritual playacting games in which they take turns being the servant and the mistress when their mistress (Vivien Merchant) is away. Based on the acclaimed 1947 play by Jean Genet and directed by Christopher Miles (VIRGIN AND THE GYPSY). Prior to the filming, Genet's play was performed by the same cast in 1973 and Miles uses Genet's text as the screenplay in what is essentially a filmed play. However, Miles does add some cinematic flourishes to show what is going outside the bedroom (where the play takes place) but no dialog has been added. Genet's play is a compelling piece which examines (among other things) power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and how even when "kindness" is displayed by the ruling class toward the working class it forms a resentment because it is given as a gift rather than as a right. Jackson is marvelous especially in her monologue at the very end but York, whose talent often remained in the shadow of her beauty, matches her every step of the way. Merchant vividly brings "Madame" to life however briefly. With Mark Burns as Monsieur. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Prisoner Of Shark Island (1936)

Unaware that President Lincoln has been assassinated, a physician (Warner Baxter) treats the broken leg of a man (Francis McDonald) who turns out to be John Wilkes Booth. The doctor is later arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the conspiracy of the Lincoln assassination despite his protestations of innocence. Directed by John Ford, this is a highly fictionalized account of the case of Dr. Samuel Mudd. The film portrays him as a totally innocent man when, in fact, Mudd (who was pro slavery) knew Booth well enough to have him as an overnight guest in his home. He made no attempt to contact authorities after treating Booth and learning of the assassination (if he did not already know). The movie is tainted with that inexplicable pro Confederacy edge that was so prevalent in the "golden" age of Hollywood. All that aside, its historical fabrications (Hollywood played fast and loose with history in the 30s and 40s) could have been overlooked if the movie had any artistic or entertainment value but it's a rather sluggish vehicle. Baxter does well enough but the rest of the cast overacts considerably with John Carradine at his worst. He plays his prison guard like he was playing Simon Legree in the third road company of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN! With Gloria Stuart (TITANIC), Harry Carey, Paul Fix and O.P. Heggie.

Gypsy (2015)

A stage mother (Imelda Staunton) with a steely drive and determination pushes her two daughters June (Scarlet Roche then Gemma Sutton) and Louise (Lara Wollington then Lara Pulver) toward the stardom she wants for them at any cost. One of the great musicals of the Broadway stage with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, first produced in 1959 with Ethel Merman. In addition to the 1962 film version with Rosalind Russell and a 1993 TV version with Bette Midler, it has seen several revivals on Broadway. This is literally a filmed play, an archival record of the 2015 London production which won 4 Olivier awards including best actress for Staunton, perhaps best known to American audiences for her Oscar nominated performance in VERA DRAKE. While Staunton may not have Merman's belter lungs, her singing voice is more than decent. But it's her ability to act her songs rather than just sing them that makes her performance so sensational. For the first time, I fully got Rose's Turn! Staunton's Mama Rose's frustration and rage spews forth and we can see the Freudian logic that set her on this path. I was also impressed by Lara Pulver's Louise/Gypsy, believable as both the awkward adolescent and the burlesque star. Directed by Lonny Price adapting Jonathan Kent's stage direction. With Peter Davison, Dan Burton and Anita Louise Comb, Louise Gold and Julie Legrand as the three over the hill strippers with the show stopping You Gotta Get A Gimmick.  

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Eyewitness (1981)

When a Vietnamese businessman (Chao Li Chi) is murdered in a Manhattan office building, the night janitor (William Hurt) pretends to know more about the crime than he does in order to impress a TV reporter (Sigourney Weaver) that he has a crush on. Unfortunately, that lie places both their lives in danger. Directed by Peter Yates (BULLITT) from an original screenplay by Steven Tesich (BREAKING AWAY), this thriller suffers from an overly contrived plot (if only Tesich had realized that less is more) that is far fetched and finally falls apart in a preposterous finale. Hurt and Weaver were both just coming off their breakthrough films, ALTERED STATES and ALIEN, so this film was eagerly anticipated. Fortunately, their careers managed to overcome the disappointment. In fact, Hurt and Weaver are the reason for watching this film. For such newcomers (at the time), they not manage to not only not embarrass themselves in such weak material but display a likable screen presence and a subdued chemistry. But the film is padded out with a subplot involving James Woods as a possible murder suspect and his sister (Pamela Reed) who is engaged to Hurt's character that seems unnecessary. With Christopher Plummer, Morgan Freeman, Irene Worth, Steven Hill, Kenneth McMillan and Alice Drummond.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Flame Of New Orleans (1941)

In 1841 New Orleans, a gold digger (Marlene Dietrich) passes herself off as a Countess in order to snare herself a rich husband. She finds herself one (Roland Young) but a rough river boat captain (Bruce Cabot) catches her fancy. I've never been a fan of Dietrich and with the exception of BLUE ANGEL, I find her movies with Josef von Sternberg rather much although I can see what others see in them. This Rene Clair directed confection on the other hand I find delightful fun and Dietrich appealing. Maybe precisely because it doesn't have the overcooked exoticism of her von Sternberg films, Dietrich doesn't have to try and be the enigmatic woman of mystery or the goddessy femme fatale. She's rather lively here and the twinkle in her eye is refreshing. It's a minor film in the Rene Clair canon but its charm goes a long way and its entertainment value can't be so easily dismissed. The supporting cast consists of some of the best character actors of the era: Anne Revere, Mischa Auer, Franklin Pangborn, Melville Cooper, Laura Hope Crews, Andy Devine, Clarence Muse and the wonderful Theresa Harris.