Saturday, October 26, 2013

Phantasm (1979)

As low-budget shockers go, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm (1979) is as assured and imaginative as they come. Working from his own script, Coscarelli crafts a trippy little adventure that blends monster horror and fantasy and science fiction quite nicely. It's loaded with jolts and a fair amount of gore but the whole notion of a reed thin undertaker stealing bodies with a crew of robed dwarves for their masters in another dimension is ghoulishly warped and entertaining.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In A World

Lake Bell's In A World has so much clever quirkiness (quirky cleverness) that you'll catch yourself checking with your movie mate to make sure he / she heard that line or caught that bit of stage business you saw because it's all so fresh. Bell, who wrote the script and stars, has crafted a fine film about a talented, though emotionally stunted, vocal coach an dvoice-over artist (Bell) in a disjointed family who is trying to catch a break into the big time. Her disapproving father (Fred Malamed), a big dog in the voice -over business, and her self-involved, concierge sister (Michaela Watkins) are of little help as she tries to crash this boys-only party. She does have champion, however, in studio engineer Louis (Demetri Martin), who loves her and her voice, but not necessarily in that order. It's funny and refreshing and highly recommended. Note: Kids won't get it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Things Never Said

Things Never Said is screenwriter Charles Murray's directorial debut and it's a fine one -- a refreshing and sparkling addition to the black cinema catalog that is currently overrun with Medeas and miscreant ministers. Set in Los Angeles, the film focuses on the struggles of a dreamy young poet Kalindra (a radiant Shanola Hampton of Summerville), whose painful marriage to a defeated and bitter man (Elimu Nelson) and a recent miscarriage fuel her art. A waitress during the day, Kalindra has become a regular on the open mike / poetry slam circuit. It is after one of her appearances that she meets a fellow poet, Curtis (Omari Hardwick), who is carting baggage not unlike her own. They start an affair -- the development of which is one of this film's strongest points -- which, of course, leads to a host of confrontations and revelations. Make no mistake, though this summary suggests the film is dripping with melodrama (and it has its share) it is so much more than some random infidelity potboiler. Those films lack elegance and intimacy and authenticity and Murray's film has all three in abundance. It is real and, yes, poetic and, in its way, inspiring. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Generation Iron

Documentarian Vlad Yudin's Generation Iron is an engrossing trip into the world of international bodybuilding. He follows a half dozen world-class competitors as they prepare for the 2012 Mr. Olympia contest in Las Vegas. Yudin devotes most of the film's 100 minutes to the rivalry between the arrogant though affable title holder Phil Heath and the reflective zen master Kai Greene. Though both men are finely sculpted behemoths, they come from starkly different backgrounds and take starkly different approaches to their quests. Yudin plumbs the depths of bodybuilder culture, it's obsessions and excesses in this fascinating film. Recommended.

The Fifth Estate

Director Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (1998), which starred Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave, was a sort of bio-pic about filmmaker James Whales' (Frankenstein) obsession and manipulation. Condon's latest film, The Fifth Estate, contains similar themes as it is a re-telling of  Julian Assange's founding of the Internet watchdog website WikiLeaks and its mission to present unedited documents regarding governmental and commercial corruption. An impressive though narcissistic Aussie, Assange (played by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch) recruits a fellow disaffected hacker, German Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl of Rush), in his quest for domination of world news. Assange's claims to be the deliverer of a new form of web-based journalism (The Fifth Estate) that would speed the obsolescence of old school practices and liberate oppressed people around the globe -- something the mainstream media are either unable or unwilling to do -- draws many to him, including media powerhouses like The New York Times and The Guardian newspapers. It's the leaking of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cable messages and classified documents related to American operations in Afghanistan that seals Assange's fate as persona non grata and leads to his seeking asylum in an Ecuadorian embassy in London. (That and charges, which are not depicted in the film, that he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden.) The film is not completely satisfying because the intricacies of WikiLeaks' cyber-assault on corporate and governmental structures are truly byzantine. However, when Condon focuses on the relationship between Assange and his unwitting enabler Berg, the film becomes much more engaging.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Metallica: Through the Never

Metallica: Through the Never is a visually arresting treat for both fanboys (and girls) of the venerable metal band and for cinephiles wanting to see a successful experiment in which 3D technology actually enhances and doesn't detract from the film. Directed by the Hungarian filmmaker Nimrod Antal, the picture combines pristine, eye-popping footage of a faux arena concert with the tale of a hapless roadie (Dane DeHaan of Chronicle) who is sent on an errand that turns into an urban nightmare of apocalyptic proportions (much like the band's songs). Antal is credited along with the four band members (singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo) with crafting the story, episodes from which are scattered among the dozen or so blistering odes for head-bangers that are actually the purpose of the film. It's a generally entertaining movie that appears to be targeted at a decidedly niche market.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

George Tillman Jr.'s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is the  distressingly familiar tale of children imperiled by their parents' inattention and dysfunction and the animosity of a world that seems to despise young people when it's not preying on them. I tried hard to like this film -- and was helped in my quest by the two young actors in the title roles (Skylan Brooks as Mister and Ethan Dizon as Pete). Tillman clearly loves these dead end kids, and their faces, and we quickly fall for the endearing Pete, an engaging Korean lad with "privacy" issues. It takes a little longer for us to warm up to Mister, an angry, skinny black kid who wants to be an actor but whose mother (Jennifer Hudson) is on the needle and turns tricks for a neighborhood pimp named Chris (a weirdly bearded Anthony Mackie). After his mother is arrested in the most nonsensical sting operation I've witnessed in quite a while, Mister is left to fend for himself and young Pete, whose mother is also a junkie hooker and avoid the social service workers until his mom returns. The days stretch into weeks as the boys wait, mount scheme after scheme to keep themselves fed and out of the way of a bushy-headed project loud mouth Mister calls Dipstick.  As much as I wanted the Mister and Pete to not be defeated and pulled for them through every turn, I felt, in the end, enervated by the two-dimensional flatness of the story, a quality that detracted from the few resonant moments in the movie. One involved a homeless veteran (played by one of finest and most under-employed actors on the planet Jeffrey Wright), Mister and a military service medal and another between a tearful Mister and a burly police officer (Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Though I feel it is meant to be uplifting, in the end the heaviness of the subject matter keeps it weighed down. Recommended with reservations.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) was a finely crafted film totally lacking in humor -- which is not to say that's a bad thing. Aside from star Matt Damon and some marvelous location shooting, it bore little resemblance to the first in the Bourne trilogy, Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity, which featured welcome smatterings of humor amidst the car chases and sniper shootings. Greengrass is an action-adventure master who knows how to turn up the heat and the intensity both on audiences and his leads. And so he does in his new, no-nonsense film, Captain Phillips, the true story of an attempted hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates near the horn of Africa. After thwarting the pirates' attempts to take his vessel, Phillips (Tom Hanks) is taken hostage by the pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his crew, who set off in the ship's lifeboat, a big orange motorized boot, and set course for Somalia to deliver Phillips up for ransom. When the action shifts to the confining quarters of the lifeboat, the film's intensity increases markedly and becomes nearly unbearable. Hanks, whose work in this film is truly splendid and deserving every accolade it will undoubtedly receive, becomes the epitome of desperation and dignity. It's a wonderful, and exhausting, movie. Highly recommended but not for the little ones.

Monday, October 7, 2013


Peter Landesman's historically based Parkland raises many questions but none about the event at the center of this film -- the assassination of President Kennedy. The main question it raised for me is what did Landesman hope this film, his directorial debut, would be? It doesn't seem to have a unifying idea or premise for the audience to ponder or respond to. It's just sad recreation of a sad day for our country. Named for the hospital where Kennedy was taken after the shooting, the film is a collection of characters swirling around the action -- medical personnel, Secret Service and FBI agents, Dallas police, members of the presidential motorcade -- but also Abraham Zapruder, whose home movie at Dealy Plaza captured the assassination, and accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, his brother and his mother. There are far too many people for the movie's 93 minutes, and no emotional investment in any of them despite having some pretty solid Hollywood wattage in Paul Giamatti as Zapruder and Billy Bob Thornton as special agent Forrest Sorrells.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Don Jon

In this wonderful and winning film, writer / director / star Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a Jersey bartender who loves the gym, beautiful women and pornography -- not in that order. And that's the film's central conceit -- Jon, a handsome and fit stud, has no problem picking up women while out with his wingmen (Ron Brown and Jeremy Luke) but he does have trouble connecting with women emotionally because he's fixated on the fantasy girls of online adult films. When he meets the winsome Barbara (a sparkling Scarlett Johansson), Jon thinks she's a true "dime" (on a 1-to-10 scale) but is not ready to commit. At her insistence, he takes her to meet his parents -- Tony Danza and Glenne Hedley -- who are enamored of her. Soon his passion for the seductive Barbara has him blowing off rounds with his buddies and committing to take night classes for upward mobility, all while dry humping her in the hallway of her apartment building. Jon tries to dump the pornography cold turkey and keeps his parish priest updated on his progress during confession on Sunday. An observant audience member will catch on to Jersey Girl Barbara way before Jon does but that doesn't mean the film is not full of surprises and thoroughly engaging because it is -- in spades. Gordon-Levitt, who kills as the randy and conflicted Jon, is clearly one of the smartest and brightest stars in Hollywood. His script is immaculate and funny and insightful and his direction hits every mark. He's assembled some heavy hitters for this work, including a marvelous Julianne Moore as a boundaries-challenged classmate who teaches Jon a few lessons about life and love. Highly Recommended but in no way is it for children.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is a spectacular film with what is being touted as revolutionary film-making technology in the service of a special survival adventure. Hollywood A-listers Sandra Bullock and George Clooney portray astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is bombarded by orbiting junk from a Russian satellite catastrophe. Both Bullock (the lead in this perilous tale) and Clooney are on their game but the biggest attraction, for me, was the jaw-dropping scenes of the rotating Earth from 370 miles above ground and the backdrop of stellar eternity stretching out behind the players. How small we are. Highly recommended but it is likely too intense for the youngest of the youngsters.

Queen & Slim

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