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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Muriel Ou Le Temps D'un Retour (1963)

A widow (Delphine Seyrig) who runs an antique shop out of her apartment is visited by a former lover (Jean Pierre Kerien). He brings along his "niece" (Nita Klein). Add her stepson (Jean Baptiste Thierree), just back from the Algerian war, to the mix and the tension runs high as ghosts from the past intrude on the present. Directed by Alain Resnais (LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD), this is a puzzle of a film and it moves so rapidly that it takes all of one's attention to fit the pieces together. The film is edited in such a way that one is never sure if certain scenes are happening as we watch or have already occurred. This was Resnais' third feature film and I actively loathed his first two (MARIENBAD and HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR) but this one grabbed me for some reason, maybe because it wasn't as abstract as the others though the narrative is far from linear. The film is about how the past is always with us and attempts to move on with our lives can never be successful until we confront that past. But some characters are so deluded that their past consists of lies and untruths (which have impacted others) and they continue to run away from their past rather than accept it and deal with it. There's an excellent atonal underscore by Hans Werner Henze. 

Ladyhawke (1985)

In medieval Italy, a young thief (Matthew Broderick) escapes from the dungeons of Aquila. He is pursued by the Bishop of Aquila's guards but saved by a mysterious stranger (Rutger Hauer) whose strange fate forms the basis of a heartbreaking love story. Directed by Richard Donner (LETHAL WEAPON), there's a lovely almost fairy tale movie somewhere in there that's trying to get out. Alas, it's so compromised that it's doomed from the start. It's as if the film makers (there are three credited screenwriters) felt that the romanticism wasn't strong enough to take center stage so they've gussied it up. Matthew Broderick is so contemporary that he seems to have come in from another movie, he's a real fish out of water here. Fortunately, there's Hauer and the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer as the lovers and they bring a genuine sense of pain and pathos to their characters. But while it's set in medieval times, the ghastly disco underscore by Andrew Powell firmly places the film in the 1980s! What were they thinking? One of those "almost" movies and that's almost enough to make it worth watching. With Leo McKern, John Wood, Alfred Molina and Ken Hutchison.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England (1960)

In 1901 England, a group of Irish revolutionaries plot to rob the Bank Of England which has never been done before. An Irish American (Aldo Ray) is recruited by the widow (Elizabeth Sellars) of an Irish martyr to undertake and plan the venture. Directed by John Guillermin (TOWERING INFERNO), this is a modest heist film that entertains but doesn't spend much time (it runs under 90 minutes) on characterization and it does seem a bit rushed. The film's aims are accomplished and Guillermin does a decent job of whipping up some tension especially in the film's last 20 minutes. It's not an essential film but it does contain an early performance by a young on the cusp of stardom Peter O'Toole as the bank's Brigade Guard Captain and whose next film was LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. There's a romantic subplot of sorts that muddles the film and it probably would have been best to jettison it and concentrated on the specificities of the actual robbery details. With Kieron Moore, Albert Sharpe and Hugh Griffith.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mother (1996)

After a failed second marriage, a science fiction writer (Albert Brooks) decides his relationship problems stem from his relationship with his mother (Debbie Reynolds). To that end, he decides to move back home and into his old room to resolve some issues. Co-written (with Monica Johnson) and directed by Brooks, this is a witty and clever comedy that most of us can relate too. Haven't we all at some time or other been exasperated by our mother's inability to understand us and vice versa? It got great reviews when it opened and went on to win both the New York Film Critics award and National Society Of Film Critics award for best screenplay. With Reynolds' recent passing (what a shitty year 2016 has been!), I wanted to revisit her last really great performance and she's marvelous here. Her comedic timing is impeccable but she brings more than just her talent as a comedic actress, she brings a poignant depth to a woman of a certain generation who had to put her dreams away in order to raise her children. A genuine gem and if you've not seen it, worth going out of your way to check it out. With Rob Morrow, Lisa Kudrow and Anne Haney.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Star Wars (1977)

In a galaxy far away, there is a civil war going on and one of the rebel leaders Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is captured with some very important plans on her person. She sends a droid with a message to a former Jedi master (Alec Guinness) asking for help. I hadn't seen STAR WARS in some 20 years and the untimely passing of Carrie Fisher this week was a good enough reason to revisit the movie that became a cultural phenomenon and, for better or for worse, changed the landscape of Hollywood film making and the introduction of the blockbuster mentality (though some would say JAWS (1975) was the film that started it). Written and directed by George Lucas, so much has changed in the ensuing years that the film's impact is lessened but its sincere eagerness to please retains much of its appeal. Using Kurosawa's HIDDEN FORTRESS as a template, Lucas has created a space swashbuckler of sorts with light sabers replacing swords and space smugglers replacing pirates but it's mindlessly entertaining with an innocence not yet corrupted by the calculating blockbuster mentality that it spawned. With Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Peter Cushing and James Earl Jones providing the voice of Darth Vader. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Good Woman (2004)

Set in the 1930s, a young newlywed (Scarlett Johansson) and her husband (Mark Umbers) are spending "the season" on the Amalfi coast in Italy. But when an older woman (Helen Hunt) with a dubious reputation appears on the scene, she suspects her husband of having an affair with her. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is Oscar Wilde's most famous play but I've always preferred his LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN. Directed by Mike Barker, Howard Himmelstein's screenplay is a clever updating of Wilde's FAN which has been adapted for the screen at least three previous times as well as numerous TV adaptations. While Wilde's notable wit has been diluted somewhat, it's still colorful, elegant and well acted. While the Wilde purists would no doubt object to what is lost by the updating but if what we get is watered down Wilde, the compensations are not to be sneezed at. Hunt brings a nice air of desperation and poignancy to her Mrs. Erylnne and Johansson is suitably demure and Ben Seresin (WORLD WAR Z) does justice to the Italian locations. With Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Campbell Moore, John Standing and Milena Vukotic.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas In Connecticut (1945)

The publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) of a woman's magazine insists that the magazine's food writer (Barbara Stanwyck) who writes about her recipes, her Connecticut farm, her husband and baby entertain a war hero (Dennis Morgan) and himself for Christmas. The only problem is ..... she can't cook, she doesn't live on a farm, she's not married and doesn't have a baby! Can she carry off this charade without being discovered? Directed by Peter Godfrey, unlike most Christmas movies, this is a charming Christmas screwball comedy with no treacly sentiment. Stanwyck is, of course, a wonderful comedienne but one wishes she had a stronger leading man than the stalwart Dennis Morgan. The supporting cast picks up the slack what with S.Z. Sakall and Una O'Connor on hand to do their specialties as well as Greenstreet.  It would make a good double bill with Stanwyck's other Christmas movie, REMEMBER THE NIGHT. With Reginald Gardiner, Joyce Compton and Robert Shayne. Remade for television in 1992 with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holiday Affair (1955)

Set during Christmas, a young war widow (Phyllis Thaxter) raising her son (Christoper Olsen, MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH) by herself keeps her longtime boyfriend (Elliott Reid) waiting for an answer to his proposal of marriage. When she inadvertently gets a department store clerk (Scott Brady) fired, she attempts to make amends but there's no denying the attraction between the two of them. A remake of the 1949 holiday film with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh, all the charm (however minimal) is gone and Thaxter and Brady don't have the movie star presence of Mitchum and Leigh to keep us interested. It's a curiosity at best and I've never had anything against remaking (this was done for television) popular films and it's often fun to compare. But this can't justify its existence. Directed by Earl Eby. With Herbert Butterfield and Mary Adams as the grandparents.   

Monday, December 19, 2016

Last Train From Madrid (1937)

Set in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the government is shutting down the railway line out of Madrid after the final evening train pulls out. In GRAND HOTEL style, a disparate group of characters, good and bad, rich and poor, desperately seek a spot on the train and for some it's a matter of life and death. They include an American journalist (Lew Ayres), an aristocrat (Dorothy Lamour), a deserting soldier (Robert Cummings), an Army Captain (Anthony Quinn), an escaped convict (Gilbert Roland), a Baroness (Karen Morley), a sleazy lounge lizard (Lee Bowman), a girl (Helen Mack) of ill repute and the daughter (Olympe Bradna) of an executed political prisoner. Directed by James P. Hogan, it's varied in its story lines, some are more interesting than others. Hogan manages to slowly build up the tension as you're rooting for your favorite people to make the train safely but wouldn't you know it, the one character I liked the most doesn't make it! It's a programmer and while it doesn't quite have the star line up of GRAND HOTEL or MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, I found it quite engaging. The film features one of Anthony Quinn's rare good roles in the 1930s (he career didn't hit high gear until the 1950s) and Robert Cummings is as awful as ever. With Lionel Atwill and Henry Brandon and Alan Ladd is supposed to have a bit in here but I didn't catch him. 

The Man Who Wouldn't Talk (1958)

An American scientist (Anthony Quayle) and a secret agent (Zsa Zsa Gabor) arrive in England on a secret assignment involving a deadly virus. But a break in at their hotel room ends up with the scientist arrested for murder ..... and he refuses to testify in his own defense! Produced and directed by Herbert Wilcox, not coincidentally married to the film's star Anna Neagle (a rather charmless actress) who plays Quayle's attorney. Co-written by the famed crime writer Edgar Lustgarten, this minor British courtroom drama is better in its first half. Once we get to the courtroom section, Neagle's posturing reduces the effectiveness of those scenes. It's entertaining enough for its duration but also forgettable. A friend called Neagle, a Greer Garson without the warmth and that about sums it up. At least, Gabor provided some much needed glamour to the film before she's knocked off. I'm not that well versed on British law or courtroom proceedings but it seems accurate enough. With Dora Bryan, Katherine Kath, Hugh McDermott and Patrick Allen. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

L'Avenir (aka Things To Come) (2016)

A middle aged philosophy author and professor (Isabelle Huppert) suddenly finds her life in crisis when her husband (Andre Marcon) leaves her, her suicidal mother (Edith Scob) has a breakdown, her publisher doesn't renew her contract and her favorite student (Roman Kolinka) questions her commitment to her ideals. Directed by Mia Hansen Love and with a wonderful performance by Huppert at its core. A lot happens to Huppert's character in the film but it's far from a melodrama. It's a quietly cerebral look at a woman dealing with drastic changes and rather than falling apart, accepting the inevitable and opportunity for a second chance at freedom and all the uncertainty, fear and possibilities it promises. Hansen-Love's film isn't a mainstream feminist tract like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN or ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. Rather it's a deceptively simple look at the possibilities of the extraordinary emerging from the ordinary. We follow Huppert's character as she lives her life, much like our own, but the film ends with her journey just beginning. As to what will happen, we know as much as she does ... which is nothing. With Sarah Le Picard and Solal Forte.    

How The West Was Won (1962)

A farmer (Karl Malden), his wife (Agnes Moorehead) and their two daughters (Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker) set out from Illinois to the Western frontier to build a new life. But the journey will be fraught with danger and not all of them will make it but they will become part of the pioneers who build the West. This massive Oscar nominated epic was shot in the 3 panel Cinerama process, runs nearly 3 hours with an intermission, utilized three official directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall) and a cast of 25 major stars plus many familiar supporting players. But they forgot the most important element ... a decent script. It would take more than 3 hours to show how the West was "won" so what we're given is a pedestrian western with soap opera elements, mundane dialog and a simplistic narrative. Only Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck manage to develop their characters beyond a sketch. However, visually, especially if seen in Cinerama, this is a pretty spectacular film. Cinerama had an unusually impressive depth of field which is accentuated by 4 major set pieces: the raft on the rapids, the Cheyenne wagon train attack, the buffalo stampede and the train robbery. The underscore by Alfred Newman is simply sensational. With John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Eli Wallach, Lee J. Cobb, Walter Brennan, Carolyn Jones, Lee Van Cleef, Thelma Ritter, Russ Tamblyn, Raymond Massey and Brigid Bazlen. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Io La Conoscevo Bene (aka I Knew Her Well) (1965)

A naive young girl (Stefania Sandrelli, THE CONFORMIST) leaves her country home for Rome where she aspires to be a model/actress. But she lacks the passion and drive and instead ends up living "la dolce vita" as a party girl. Directed by Antonio Pietrangeli, his film is often compared to Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA but with a female protagonist. Actually, I think the film to compare it with is John Schlesinger's DARLING which came out the same year though I think CONOSCEVO is the better film. Both movies deal with vacuous young women with a shallow "party" lifestyle, drifting from man to man. But DARLING's Diana was heartless and calculating and our lack of empathy for her made us distant observers. Sandrelli's Adriana may be as vacuous but there's a sweetness and innocence about her that makes us hope that something good will finally happen for her. Adriana is a victim of the debauched and cynical "la dolce vita" 60s, Diana was a part of it. The screenplay (which includes Ettore Scola among its 3 writers) is a series of moments which add up to a devastating conclusion. Pietrangeli crams the film's soundtrack with 60s Italian pop which is very effective. The large cast includes Ugo Tognazzi, Jean Claude Brialy, Franco Nero, Karin Dor, Mario Adorf, Enrico Maria Salerno, Nino Manfredi, Robert Hoffman and Veronique Vendell. 

Friday, December 16, 2016

Soylent Green (1973)

It's the year 2022 and New York City is an overpopulated polluted disaster. "Real" food has become a scarcity that only the very privileged can afford and the rest of mankind must settle for Soylent products made from ocean plankton. But when a member (Joseph Cotten) of the privileged class is brutally murdered, a New York City detective (Charlton Heston) stumbles onto a horrifying secret. Based on the novel MAKE ROOM MAKE ROOM by Harry Harrison and directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA), this is one of the genuine classics of the sci-fi genre. To an extent, it's not unlike a superior episode of the TWILIGHT ZONE but its premise is so potent and prescient (it was made in 1973 and shows the possible effects of global warming) that it remains as riveting today as it did upon its original release. This was the last film of the great Edward G. Robinson (he died almost 2 weeks after filming) and in his final scene, he goes out with as great a swan song as an actor could wish for. It's a film resonating more today than it did in 1973 which accounts for its cult status. With Leigh Taylor Young, Chuck Connors, Paula Kelly, Brock Peters, White Bissell and Celia Lovsky.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Queen Of The Desert (2015)

The story of Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, spy and archaeologist who explored, mapped and became highly influential to British imperial policy making due to her knowledge and contacts. As influential as her contemporary, T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson). Directed by Werner Herzog (FITZCARRALDO), if I had to sum up the film in as few words as possible, I'd say a beautiful bore about covers it. Visually, it's absolutely stunning and Peter Zeitlinger's images give the film its only asset. Clearly Herzog was hoping to give us a distaff version of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but his flat screenplay is bereft of anything fresh. Even taking into consideration that English isn't his first language, the script is mundane and none of the actors are able to lift Herzog's words into anything that doesn't sound trite. Truth to tell, I found LAWRENCE OF ARABIA tedious at times too but at least David Lean knew what he was doing. QUEEN lacks any intricacy or insight. I don't know what drew Herzog to this project other than perhaps showing he could make a big budget mainstream epic too. Considering what she had to work with, Kidman's performance isn't bad at all. With James Franco, Jenny Agutter and Damian Lewis.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Swing Shift (1984)

During WWII, when America's male population went off to war, its women left the homefront (many for the first time) and worked in defense plants to help the war effort. When the war was over, nothing would ever be the same again. SWING SHIFT follows a young wife (Goldie Hawn) whose husband (Ed Harris) is in the navy and how she changes during the war years. Directed by Joanthan Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) from an original screenplay by Nancy Dowd (though the screenplay is credited to "Rob Morton"). SWING SHIFT is one of those films where there was a difference of opinion between the star (Hawn) and director (Demme) on what direction the film should take. Hawn won. What we have is good enough that one wishes we could see Demme's cut as I suspect it might be the more satisfying version. It's difficult to empathize with Hawn's character when she spends most of the war years having an affair with a musician (Kurt Russell) while her husband is off risking his life in a word war. It seems odd that her character wouldn't have more guilt, self doubts about what she was doing. In the present film, she just seems to be giving lip service. The premise of the film, that of women experiencing a life outside of the home for the first time only to have it be taken from them when the men return home is a great subject for a movie. This might have been it but it's not. With Oscar nominated Christine Lahti, who steals the movie, Holly Hunter (who has one great scene), Fred Ward, Charles Napier, Sudie Bond and Lisa Pelikan.

First A Girl (1935)

Hoping to break into show business, a singer/dancer (Jessie Matthews) allows herself to replace a female impersonator (Sonnie Hale) and pass herself off a boy. Which makes it difficult when she finds herself falling in love with a dashing playboy (Griffith Jones). Directed by Victor Saville (THE SILVER CHALICE), this is an English language version of the 1933 German film VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA which was made again in 1982 by Blake Edwards as VICTOR VICTORIA. While it lacks the sophisticated elegance and sexual freedom that the 1980s allowed the Edwards film, this is still a charming little musical. Great Britain in the 1930s was no match for the Hollywood musicals of Astaire & Rogers or Busby Berkeley but in the toothy Jessie Matthews they had a true musical star. She had a nice soprano, was a decent dancer with great legs and a warm screen presence. But not unlike the 1982 film, it's almost stolen by Sonnie Hale as her mentor in much the same way that Robert Preston commanded VICTOR VICTORIA. The songs aren't much but Ralph Reader's choreography is lively though it owes much to Busby Berkeley. All in all, a glistening B&W confection. With Anna Lee (HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) and Martita Hunt. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Silver Chalice (1954)

The adopted son (Paul Newman) of a wealthy Greek (E.G. Marshall) is sold into slavery by his Uncle (Herbert Rudley) after his father's death. But his freedom is later bought by an evangelist (Alexander Scourby) so that the young man, who is a sculptor, can create a silver chalice commemorating Christ's last supper. Parallel to this plot, an ambitious magician (Jack Palance) aspires to greatness that soon descends into madness. Based on the novel by Thomas B. Costain and directed by Victor Saville. While it's your standard stiffly acted 50s biblical epic with pompous dialog, it has one stunning asset that elevates it above most of its ilk: the amazing production design by Rolf Gerard and the art direction of Boris Leven. It makes no attempt to look realistic. Indeed, its purposely artificial look as if a stage set is intentional, a sort of stylized sterile expressionism. This was Newman's film debut and is often considered his worst film (it's not) but he's certainly all wrong in the casting department. Newman is one of those contemporary actors like a fish out of water in period films or costume dramas. The most interesting character and the film's best performance comes from Virginia Mayo as Palance's wily assistant. The strong Oscar nominated score is by Franz Waxman. With Natalie Wood, Lorne Greene, Joseph Wiseman, Albert Dekker, Robert Middleton and Ian Wolfe.

The Captive (1915)

Set during the Balkan wars, a young peasant girl (Blanche Sweet) from Montenegro must tend to the farm and her little brother (Gerald Ward) after her older brother (Page Peters) leaves for the war front. Meanwhile, the Turkish prisoners of war are assigned to help the women whose men are off to war. When a Turkish nobleman (House Peters) is assigned to her farm, the two find themselves attracted to each other. Cecil B. DeMille is more renowned today for his spectaculars but during the silent era, most of his films were rather subdued. This wispy tale of a burgeoning love between two people from different classes and countries balances humor (Peters doing the baking and laundry) and drama (an attempted rape) in equal doses. In 1915, Blanche Sweet was a huge star so her presence alone would be sure to attract ticket buyers. But if she's not a very commanding actress, she has a pleasant presence and a warm chemistry with House Peters. It's not a particularly memorable film but for fans of silent cinema or early DeMille, it's a must. 

The Magus (1968)

An Englishman (Michael Caine) takes a position as a school teacher on a small Greek island replacing the previous teacher who died under mysterious circumstances. He is befriended by a wealthy Greek recluse (Anthony Quinn) who may be a doctor or perhaps a magician or possibly a film producer or even a WWII traitor ... or maybe none of those things. Let the psychological games begin! Based on the novel by John Fowles, who adapted his book for the screen and directed by Guy Green. While successful film adaptations of Fowles' THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN and THE COLLECTOR have made it to the screen, THE MAGUS is a failure. Rather than a cerebral puzzle that takes us on a unique cinematic journey, we get what feels like a big con job. Caine endlessly wanders around the beautiful island while Candice Bergen poses (she still seemed unsure of her acting at this point in her career) and Caine and Quinn speak in enigmatic existential bytes. "Why me?", "Why anybody?", "Tell me the truth" "What is truth?" ... get the picture? Even Fowles hated the film and he wrote the screenplay! On the plus side, Billy Williams Greek and Spanish location lensing is handsome and there's a nice score by John Dankworth. With Anna Karina, Julian Glover and Corin Redgrave.   

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Slightly French (1949)

When the French actress (Adele Jergens) starring in his latest film has an emotional breakdown, a director (Don Ameche) hires a carnival performer (Dorothy Lamour) and trains her to pose as a French entertainer so she can replace the ill star. Directed by melodrama maestro Douglas Sirk, this piece of cinematic cotton candy is strictly by the numbers. The cast tries hard, desperately hard, but they can't get past the formulaic script. Lamour is a real trouper but she wasn't much of an actress and the role taxes her limited abilities. Even in the film's big musical production number, it's obvious that she has a dance double to do the more intricate choreography (by Robert Sidney). Ameche huffs and puffs away but can't hide that he's on auto pilot. Maybe if the film had been shot in bright Technicolor hues instead of B&W, it might have given the movie some needed eye candy but as it is, it's merely desperate. Sirk doesn't bring any of his distinctive style to the proceedings but to be fair, what could he have done? For Lamour fans only. With Janis Carter, Willard Parker and Jeanne Manet.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Tallulah (2016)

A homeless vagrant (Ellen Page) who lives by scamming and stealing and eating out of dumpsters is mistaken for a hotel maid by a rich, lonely and alcoholic woman (Tammy Blanchard) who is hiding out from her husband. She asks the vagabond to watch her baby girl while she goes out to meet a man. Appalled at what an unfit mother the woman is, the vagrant absconds with the baby. A woman (Allison Janney) whose husband (John Benjamin Hickey) dumps her for a man (Zachary Quinto) is finding it difficult to adjust to unmarried life. These two stories will merge. Every once in awhile, you come across some small indie movie that slips under the radar and find a little jewel. TALLULAH is such a movie. Frankly, I'd never heard of it until a screener showed up in my mail. It's a rich, complex and beautifully acted film with three strong female performances. It's a difficult movie to adjust to because while we're appalled by the kidnapping of a baby from its mother, the mother is unfit and a danger to the child. So do we root for the kidnapper who's crossed the line? Do we want the poor child returned to the mother from Hell? And what about the innocent woman placed in the crossfire of this mess? In the end, the film tells the story but doesn't give us any answers, it's up to our own moral judgment and the film leaves the questions of what happens to these characters unanswered. These aren't cardboard cutouts and we end up feeling empathy for both the kidnapper and the unfit mother. Directed by Sian Heder. With Uzo Aduba and Evan Jonigkeit.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Edge Of Seventeen (2016)

A 17 year old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) is a bit of a misfit whose life is full of anxiety and depression that takes a turn for the worst when her only friend (Haley Lu Richardson) falls in love with her older brother (Blake Jenner) who she can't stand. Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, this is yet another tale of teen angst from the viewpoint of the unpopular kid that everybody ignores including her own mother (Kyra Sedgwick). But it's a very good effort with a fresh take and delivery. The film is fortuitous in having Steinfeld at the film's center. She brings both an actor's sincerity and a comedienne's timing to an authentic portrait of an unsure teen who has yet to find her center. It helps that she's so likable because her character really is a pain in the arse. My only minor quibble is that Hollywood once again casts a very attractive actress (Steinfeld is adorable) in the role of an unpopular misfit when in reality she would probably be the prom queen. But hey, that's the movies for you! When something is this good, why carp on minor issues? With Woody Harrelson, Alexander Calvert and the appealing Hayden Szeto.  

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

The group of super heroes known as The Avengers fall into disfavor when their actions cause a building to explode killing several humanitarian workers. The United Nations insists on an accord to supervise and control the team. The Avengers are split on whether to accept the accords with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) facing off. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, this should be a thrill for Marvel Comics fans but for the rest of us, not so much. Granted, I'm hardly the demographic for stuff like this but actors and stunt men zipping around in front of a green screen on wires while CGI provides the explosions and cars flipping over and the sound department goes into Dolby overdrive gets tired very fast. I've not kept up with the franchise (though I enjoyed the first IRON MAN and SPIDERMAN entries) but it was easy to fill in the blanks. But man is that Chris Evans a giant hole in the screen! All the other actors seem overqualified for this nonsense with only Daniel Bruhl managing to create an actual human being among the super heroes. The massive cast includes Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, William Hurt, Don Cheadle, Marisa Tomei, Alfre Woodard, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Anthony Mackie, Tom Holland, Martin Freeman and Hope Davis.

The Neon Demon (2016)

A naive 16 year old girl (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A. with the hope of breaking into the modeling business. Her innocence and natural beauty are like catnip to the corrupt and debauched narcissistic world of fashion. Will she survive or will they devour her? Nicolas Winding Refn's film is certainly the most glamorous horror film since THE HUNGER (1983) and has just about as much depth. That's not meant as a negative. This is an ape shit crazy movie! Totally insane! If you're looking for logic, coherence or good taste, don't even bother. But if you're looking for a dazzling audio/visual rollercoaster ride with occasional doses of wit, then enjoy! This is the best looking (vivid blues, blood reds and stark whites) and the best use of lighting I've seen in a movie all year. Like De Palma, Refn shows a preference for style over substance and that's okay by me. Refn "borrows" from Lynch, Polanski, Bava and even Russ Meyer. It's not the kind of movie where the acting matters much. Jena Malone manages to bring some interesting shades to her predatory lesbian and Elle Fanning is as great a camera subject as any young actress working today. Those used to Refn's testosterone levels in his previous films might be disappointed as he turns his eye to the distaff side. Can I recommend it? You should be able to tell by now if it's your cup of tea. With Keanu Reeves as a pedophile, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee  and Alessandro Nivola.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mr. Church (2016)

A little girl (Natalie Coughlin, who grows into Britt Robertson) lives with her single mother (Natascha McElhone) who is slowly dying of cancer. Into their lives comes a cook (Eddie Murphy) courtesy of her deceased ex-lover whose estate will pay for his services and her medical needs for the six months she's expected to live. But those six months turn into a lifetime for the girl and the mysterious cook. Directed by Bruce Beresford (DRIVING MISS DAISY), this is the kind of movie that quietly sneaks up on you. You think you know where's it's going and for the majority of the time, you're right. But there are enough little surprises that make the journey well worth traveling. Although the film is called MR. CHURCH and Eddie Murphy is top billed, the film's distributor is putting him in the supporting actor category and I have no problem with that because the movie's focus is the character of Charlotte (Coughlin/Robertson). While the critics haven't been kind, audiences (at least those who've managed to see it) have been generous. Reputedly inspired by a "true friendship", the film perpetuates the kindly black man who serves the white family with selfless dedication but it's unfair to pigeonhole the movie like that. Principally because Murphy's excellent performance has so many unspoken layers to it, it's easily his best film work. With Xavier Samuel, Lucy Fry and Christian Madsen.  

Denial (2016)

An American professor (Rachel Weisz) of Holocaust studies is sued for libel by a British historian (Timothy Spall) who denied the Holocaust happened. Unlike U.S. courts however, the burden of proof is upon the accused, not the accuser. Directed by Mick Jackson (L.A. STORY), this is a riveting and compelling film documenting the continual denial by a small segment of the worst crime against humanity in the 20th century. Based on the actual libel trial of author Deborah Lipstadt and professional Holocaust denier David Irving, as a film, it may be handicapped by squeezing in several years into a slightly less than 2 hour film. While interesting tidbits are eliminated (like Irving making several overtures to settle out of court), what is presented is still factual and potent. The three central performances by Weisz, Spall and Tom Wilkinson are strong and David Hare's (THE HOURS) powerful screenplay gives them enough to flesh out their characters rather than talking mouthpieces for a cause. Interestingly, the film gives us no epilogue as is usual with films based on true stories as to what happened after the story. In 1996, Irving (who went bankrupt after the trial) was arrested in Austria (where Holocaust denial is a crime) and claimed he had changed his opinion and that the Germans had, in fact, murdered millions of Jews. I'll make no comment about his "sincerity".   

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Maggie's Plan (2016)

A young director (Greta Gerwig) of art and design at a university meets a part time teacher (Ethan Hawke) also at the school. Although he is married to a professor (Julianne Moore) at Columbia, they fall in love. What follows are complex issues of romance, extended family and manipulation. Directed by Rebecca Miller (Arthur's daughter), one can't overlook the elephant in the room ..... Woody Allen. Whether intentional or not, the film comes across as either a homage to Woody Allen or at the very least, hugely influenced by him. These are intellectual New Yorkers whose greatest problems aren't keeping a roof over their head or getting food on the table like the rest of us mortals. No, their primary problem is relationships and the messiness of love. Certainly, that's a valid subject for film making and not the exclusive domain of Allen but while the terrain and style isn't patented, when you do a movie like this ... you're going to be held to Allen at his best. On its own, it's serviceable with some appealing performances (notably Gerwig). I'm still not sure about Julianne Moore, she's might be brilliant but I haven't decided because that damn generic Eastern European accent gets in the way. With Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn and Travis Fimmel.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Eye In The Sky (2016)

A British Colonel (Helen Mirren) is in charge of a mission to track down and capture an Englishwoman and her Islamic husband who are known terrorists. When the couple are found in Kenya, capturing is no longer an option but a strike is. The problem is that the strike not only could cause an international incident, but there are moral, ethical and legal questions which must be addressed. Directed by Gavin Hood (the underrated RENDITION), this is a sensational political thriller. In fact, I don't think I've seen a political thriller  so edge of your seat intense since Costa Gavras' Z. Remarkably, Hood doesn't attempt to sway us either way (one can imagine the mess Oliver Stone would have made with this). He presents the dilemma to us and leaves the rest to our conscience. The military aren't portrayed as conscienceless war mongers, Hood gives them their due even though we may not approve of their ultimate action. The issue of saving one innocent life when placed against the possibility of many more lives being taken if that one life isn't sacrificed isn't a burden any of us would want to bear. I hope I'm not making it sound like a preaching to the choir film when it's anything but. The excellent ensemble cast includes Alan Rickman (in his final film role), Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS), Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Michael O'Keefe and Aisha Takow.  

Hell Or High Water (2016)

Two brothers, a divorced father (Chris Pine) and an ex-con (Ben Foster), go on a bank robbing spree in West Texas with a soon to be retired Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) hot on their trail. David Mackenzie's black comedy owes most of its success to Taylor Sheridan's clever script which manages to appeal to both the conservative element that got Trump elected (it's heroes are the disenfranchised gun toting "white trash" that helped pave his way to the presidency) and the liberal faction that stands against the exploitation of the little man by corporations (in this case, banks) and since they can't side with the cop killers, their stand in is Bridges' Texas Ranger who provides the moral backbone to the film. Bridges is superb here but that's no surprise. The real surprise is Chris Pine who brings an unexpected depth to his conflicted good ol' boy. Alas, poor Ben Foster is stuck in a one dimensional role that isn't a recognizable human being but the creation of someone who's seen too many movies. But he tries, I'll give him that! The film borders pretentiousness with its obvious moralizing but I suppose without it, it's just SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT so I'm not complaining. Stunning work by the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, among the best of the year. The casting director should get some sort of award, everyone looks like real people, not actors. With Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon and Margaret Bowman, hilarious in her one scene as the aging waitress from Hell. 

The Bronze (2016)

A former Olympic Bronze medalist (Melissa Rauch) is a bitter mess, coasting on her former glory in the small Ohio town she lives in. When an opportunity arises to train an upcoming gymnast (Haley Lu Richardson), she has a last chance to redeem herself. Directed by Bryan Buckley from an original screenplay by Rauch and her husband Winston. Basically a one trick pony, this raunchy comedy is more entertaining than it has any right to be. The humor is coarse and juvenile but so unapologetic in its crassness that I couldn't help but laugh. There's a sex scene between Rauch and Sebastian Stan that had me shaking my head in disbelief. It takes awhile to warm up to it because Rauch's sourpuss bitch and Gary Cole as her enabler father are an irritating pair but as the movie progresses it sneaks up on you or maybe I just gave up and gave in but the end result is the same. I enjoyed it. With Cecily Strong, Thomas Middleditch and Dale Raoul.

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.