Sunday, November 25, 2012


Ron Fricke's Samsara is a peculiar kind of documentary travelogue.    Through truly spectacular 70 mm cinematography, Fricke appears to be taking viewers not on a dispassionate tour of 25 countries and exotic locales but rather on an exploration of authenticity of human existence on our planet. This authenticity -- and its antithesis, the synthetic -- is displayed in dozens and dozens of ways. The film is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of images; the camera's eye is unwavering whether trained on Egyptian sand dunes, the painted faces of African tribesmen or a poultry processing plant in the Philippines. Fricke, who took five years to assemble the images, has not crafted a conventional narrative and there is no dialogue, just a fascinating bed of world and new age music to underscore (not always subtly) what's on the screen. Samsara is the term used to describe the Buddhist belief of unending life and rebirth and often includes the notion of suffering as being man's natural state. Recommended.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mildred Pierce

I hope everything is peace and joy for you today BUT if by this evening you're looking for a little perspective on familial dysfunction do consider renting Mildred Pierce. This 1945 murder mystery stars Joan Crawford and tells the story of a woman's pursuit of the American dream only to be dogged by her spoiled daughter, played by Ann Blyth. Crawford won the leading actress Oscar for her Mildred, and Blyth was nominated as best supporting actress. The orginal was remade by HBO last year and starred the redoutable Kate Winslet, who won the Golden Globe for her performance. Here's a spirited little clip from the orignal, which is a cinematic classic.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Life of Pi

Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Steven Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin from last year, Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a cinematic masterpiece that pushes so many technical boundaries that its awesomeness nearly overwhelms the wonderful human story all of the wizardry should be supporting. Life of Pi, based on the novel by Yann Martel, tells the story of an Indian lad named Piscene (newcomer Suraj Sharma) who is the only member of his family to survive the capsizing of a freighter transporting them and the family's zoo to markets across the Pacific. Pi eventually finds himself alone in a lifeboat with a territorial Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (the name given to many literary shipwreck victims). I've not studied the trades to see how Lee was able to coax such a wonderful performance out of Sharma's co-star but the tiger is stunning and the two of them are worth the price of the ticket. Because the narrative is told in flashback, the film's mystery is not whether Pi survives but what he has to do to keep body and soul together. And speaking of soul, the film is steeped in Eastern spiritualism, which is refreshing, but its message of faith, loss and redemption is universal. Young children might be frightened by a couple of scenes of animal predation and the early 20 minutes of storm seas in a lifeboat might make some viewers quesy. Highly recommended -- especially in 3D.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


The real demon in Scott Derrickson's Sinister is the monomania of the lead character -- a real crime author named Ellison Oswalt (props to screenwriters Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill for a great name) looking for his next red meat bestseller. As played by Ethan Hawke, Oswalt is a bundle of unrealized potential, married to an affectionate British beauty (Juliet Rylance) and father to two fairly innocuous moppets -- the girl (Claire Foley) is a budding muralist and the boy (Michael Hall D'Addario) is an androgynous mess of pre-teen attitude prone to night terrors. As the film opens, Oswalt has moved his family to an unnamed town and into the house where a grisly family murder took place. Inexplicably, he keeps this important little detail from his wife, who when she's not cooing and pledging undying support is a whining scold. (So both hot and cold taps work.) Before long, as Oswalt settles into the investigation of the murders (8mm footage of which he finds in the attic along with home movies of other family murders dating back a few decades) he hears bumps in the night and discovers creepy occult connections between the current and previous unsolved murders, most importantly that in each case one of the children in the family went missing. With the help of a star-struck and nameless county deputy (The Wire's James Ransone) and a university professor (an uncredited Vincent D'Onofrio) he fits the pieces of the puzzle together. The film has a few solid jolts but otherwise is a mass of borrowed ideas. I do like that the lead character is a journalist on the hunt for the truth. I don't like that he's a self-involved, manipulative ass. See it if you like but leave the kids at home.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


When reflecting on Steven Spielberg's films, one doesn't have to consider if the movie was visually stunning, intelligently crafted or well-acted. Spielberg, who I consider along with Martin Scorsese to be the two greatest living Hollywood directors, attracts superior talent from among actors, cinematographers, set designers, etc. His movies are always put together marvelously, but that does not always translate into box office success. No, in appraising Spielberg's work, one asks what it is that sets his latest offering apart from the rest of his impressive catalog. In the case of Lincoln, it's Daniel Day-Lewis's towering performance as the 16th president during the weeks shortly after his re-election when he waged a historic war of politics and principles pushing for congressional passage of the 13th Amendment. In essence and effect, codifying his Emancipation Proclamation.  Day-Lewis's rendering of Lincoln is near perfection -- or maybe it is ABSOLUTE perfection for I cannot imagine any other actor pulling on Lincoln's lanky shell without even a hint of self-consciousness or theatrics. His performance is uncanny and unaffected. The other extraordinary element is the Oscar-caliber screenplay by Tony Kushner, known best as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Broadway stageplay Angels in America. Kushner, who also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg's Munich, has put such marvelous words in the mouths of his principal players -- Day-Lewis, Sally Fields as Lincoln's slowly unhinging wife Mary, Tommy Lee Jones as Lincoln ally Congressman and radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, among a host of others -- that I felt a little high from the loftiness of the oratory and humanity in its sentiments. Lincoln is a splendid motion picture from its totally disarming start to its (typically Spielbergian) tearful ending. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

My plans to see Lincoln (the movie not the capital of Nebraska) reminded me that this ridiculous Disney adventure starring Nicolas Cage opens with the assassination of the 16th president. Despite that the movie is wholesome family entertainment, blessedly free of profanity, vulgarity and bloody violence. The bad guys are vanquished, warring spouses are reunited and everybody ends up filthy rich. It also stars celebrity Republican Jon Voigt, a curiously unengaging Dame Helen Mirren, a snarky Ed Harris and the mysteriously asexual Justin Bartha. Feisty Diane Kruger also stars but along with most of the rest of the cast is horribly wasted. If you want to see her really act rent Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. She's marvelous.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cloud Atlas

The directorial combination of filmmaking visionaries like The Wachowski sibs (The Matrix trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) held great promise for Cloud Atlas, and the sprawling, puzzling karmic film doesn't disappoint -- for the most part. The more cynical moviegoer might see casting the same actors in different stories about individual and societal battles against exploitation -- on the High Seas in the 1800s, in 1930s Cambridge, in a bombed-out post apocalyptic universe where people talk like Daufuskie islanders and in a futuristic Asian consumer capital called Neo Seoul -- as more of a gimmick than a bold new cinematic storytelling device. I can't entirely disagree. The idea that we're all connected is not exactly groundbreaking and having the same people crossing one another's paths (both for good and for ill) in so many different contexts might be more cleverness than is required to make the point. And yet I thought the casting worked, mostly, but in several instances I caught myself wondering which of the actors (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, among them) was under the prosthetics. But beyond the gimmickry and the new age mysticism the film is unquestionably an accomplishment, often breathtakingly beautiful and engaging, but I'm not sure its premise will sustain much cocktail conversation. Not because the movie lacks worthwhile ideas -- it actually may have too many -- it just seems to lack a meaningful payoff after all the musing. Still, it's worth seeing, even at its substantial length -- nearly 3 hours. Recommended.

Friday, November 9, 2012


Sam Mendes is known best for his idiosyncratic character studies (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) so I was curious about how he would approach the latest entry in the 50-year-old Bond franchise, Skyfall. All of the requisite chases, gun play and extended battles are on wonderful display along with several simply gorgeous foreign locales -- Turkey, Shanghai, Macao -- but this time we also get a level of psychological complexity that few if any of the previous Bonds ever displayed. Daniel Craig's 007 is not only tireless and deadly, he's also deep. Who knew? The depths of his obsessions (martinis, women and country and not necessarily in that order) are plumbed a bit in this "episode" and his love/hate relationship with M (the heavenly Judi Dench) is of particular interest as a crazed former British agent (a creepily effete Javier Bardem) tries to take down MI6 and M herself. A failed assassination attempt during a Parliamentary hearing on an MI6 breach sends Bond and M on the run, in James's tricked out Aston Martin, to the Scottish highlands and his boyhood homestead, the eponymous Skyfall. It is there the film's bloody brilliant last battle is waged and much is revealed and resolved. See this film, you must.

Tootsie (1982)

Some films do an exceptional job helping folks get in touch with their humanity. Sydney Pollack's Tootsie is a terrific example of just such a movie and seems especially appropriate considering our country took some important steps toward more fully realizing our collective, undeniable humanity this week. (Oh, and Stepen Bishop's song, though dripping with sentiment, is for the ages. Peace.)

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Robert Zemeckis' Flight is an immaculate presentation of two wrecks -- the plane crash referred to in the title of the film and the absolute spiraling devastation of the life of the man piloting the aircraft. Denzel Washington, a true force of nature and as disciplined an actor as any when he's on (and even when he's off, most of the time) carries this film on his broad back from start to finish. He owns this picture of a man whose life is a disaster of the first magnitude but who's fighting tooth and nail to keep from acknowledging that it is. Washington's pitiable Whip Whitaker is paired with the lovely British actress Kelly Reilly, who plays the drug addicted photographer / "masseuse" Nicole, a woman Whitaker meets in the hospital after the plane crash. She's recovering from a heroin overdose, and they meet in the stairwell where fiending paitents meet to smoke. An intriguing monologue by an addling cancer patient (James Badge Dale) who wanders into the stairwell sets Whip and Nicole on paths of redemption and loss. In addition to Reilly and Dale, Washington's riveting performance is matched by Don Cheadle's as his attorney, Bruce Greenwood's as the pilot's union rep and John Goodman's as Whitaker's ponytailed dealer. Zemeckis' recreation of the crash is a marvel and his direction of the NTSB inquiry that closes the film is equally as mesmerizing. Highly recommended.

Les Miserables

It's interesting that Hollywood decided to go with Silver Screen A-listers (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway) for the film version of the musical Les Miz, a tremendous show that features many roles with very difficult vocal parts. But of particular interest is the casting of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the lousy, slovenly, filthy and conniving Thenardiers (see below). I don't get it.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...