Sunday, July 31, 2011

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen, Marion Cotillard, Carla Bruni, Adrien Brody. 94 min. Rated PG-13. Spain/USA. Comedy/Fantasy.

If you're a nostalgic person, this is the movie for you. This time Owen Wilson, playing Woody Allen's own neurotic fast-talking wise-cracking persona, dreams of living in the 1920s Paris, and (without spoiling anything) suddenly finds himself experiencing how it feels to have lived during those times - with his fiancee and in-laws' absolute lack of empathy making the story ever more charming. The resolution provided for the nostalgia is especially satisfying: It may be your ideal dream, but to keep the dream alive, keep a safe distance. One of Allen's best.

PS #1: Again, Michael Sheen's presence is the stamp of approval for a good movie.

PS #2: Watch for Carla Bruni, French President Sarkozy's wife, as the Rodin garden tour guide.

Mo says:

Rango (2011)

Director: Gore Verbinski. Cast (voices): Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Timothy Olyphant, Tim Nighy, Abigail Breslin, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Ray Winstone. 107 min. Rated PG. Animation.

A confused imitation of Pixar. A chameleon (Johnny Depp) ends up in a Western-like old town with a greedy mayor exploiting the water supply to control the masses. Just because Pixar successfully uses children's heartwarming themes to send out messages to adults, doesn't mean an adult-oriented stories (with adult characters replaced by animals) is going to work as a PG-rated cartoon. That's why the jokes aren't funny; they just got the whole concept wrong. Beautiful animation (including a very well done Clint Eastwood character as the "Spirit of the West") is this feature's sole saving grace.

Mo says:

Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen) (1970)

Director: Werner Herzog. Cast: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer, Gisela Hertwig. 96 min. Comedy/Drama/Horror. West Germany.

A disturbing film. Dwarfs in a mental institution revolt against the instructor (also a dwarf), and perform the strangest of vandalism. But midway through, when you realize even people outside the institution are dwarfs, the film takes a sudden turn: is this about how ostracizing minorities forces them to eventually become violent ... or about how any society (minority or majority) succumbs to barbarism as soon as there's a void of civil social structure? Watching this stark black-and-white situation analysis is distressing, and rest assured the dwarfs' evil cackle will haunt you for some time. Herzog rarely fails to bewilder.

PS#1: Interesting. Imdb classifies the movie as "Comedy/Drama/Horror".

PS#2: Great Herzog quote: "Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates."

PS#2: Thank you, Toast, for the recommendation.

Mo says:

Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011)

Director: Liz Garbus. 93. Min. USA/UK/Iceland. Documentary.

No, it's not a mere Bobby Fischer biography. The filmmakers make the wise choice of avoiding a boring life milestone story of the greatest grandmaster of all time, and delve into the wiring of a chess player's mind; portraying how professional chess may eventually lead to extreme paranoia, and then full-blown insanity - especially when the subject is a genius like Fischer. As a result, before his death at the age of 62, his haggard bearded appearance wasn't even recognizable from his youth. Watch this to achieve a full understanding on why chess is the most played board game ever.

Mo says:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Crimson Gold (طلاي سرخ) (2003)

Director: Jafar Panahi. Cast: Hossain Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheisi and Azita Rayeji. 95 min. Unrated. Drama.

Painful story by Panahi, recently forbidden in Iran from making films for 20 years. A middle-aged Iran-Iraq war veteran struggles heart and soul to achieve a higher socioeconomic status - but fails miserably, as he's too transparent for what he truly is. The concept may be difficult to grasp for those who haven't lived in such societies, but the film pictures a rip-roaring epidemic in Iran, as poverty-stricken self-righteous religious people turn to lives of crime, just to be considered significant in a society infiltrated with Western values. If you know the terrain , this film will break your heart.

Mo says:

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Director: Joe Johnston. Cast: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci. 124 min. Rated PG-13. Action /Sci-Fi

Not a good year for superheroes. Thor was a dud, Green Lantern didn't fare well, and now Captain America ... in which Chris Evans doesn't boast the expected charisma, the female sidekick is an absolute bore, and we're never clued into why the villain looks like a cherry-flavored Skeletor. Honestly, when your most attractive character is an army recruiter (Jones), and the most entertaining element is a bullet-proof shield, you're not doing well in the character developing department. The only intriguing scene is the final one, and that's because Samuel Jackson steps in. Just doesn't add anything to the genre.

PS: There is a short sequence after the end credits, but it's more of a movie trailer than a pertinent story segment.

Mo says:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

Director: Peter Yates. Cast: Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Jason Isaacs, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Julie Walters, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, John Hurt, Robbie Coltrane, Jim Broadbent, Emma Thompson. 130 min. Rated PG-13. Fantasy/Action.

I finally caved in to the hype - and I'm glad I did. The Potter movies have had many ups and downs, but this was by far the best (after the recent Part 1, which was the worst). Reason: they've spared us all those sudden out-of-the-blue new story elements that neutralized the narrative steam, used components from older movies, and created an entertaining action movie sprinkled with eye-popping visual effects. Most importantly, it's focused on two characters: Potter, and Voldemort -without all those distracting sideshows. Movie comes full circle with an epilogue that brings the franchise to a beautiful end.

Mo says:

Two Lovers (2008)

Director: James Gray. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Isabella Rossellini. 110 min. Rated R. Romance.

A mediocre love story. Tries to show life based on love-at-first-sight does not provide stability; to achieve that, you need to prioritize logic to emotions. No kidding. This was Joaquin Phoenix's last movie before he went cuckoo, and we suddenly realize we haven't been missing much since he departed acting. Actually, Paltrow does a better job at stealing the show.

Mo says:

Sanjuro (1962)

Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiju Kobayashi. Rated PG-13. Japan. Action/Drama.

In this sequel to Yojimbo, Mifuno again plays the role of an (almost) no-name warrior, looking for trouble in a village run by feudalist clans, siding with the inexprienced villagers, spreading Samurai wisdom along the way. The dialogue takes a more comedic turn compared to Yojimbo, which may be entertaining at times, but eventually dilutes the depth of the drama. I would have liked to see another movie that would round out a trilogy, which apparently never happened. But boy ... was Kurosawa violent for his time. Now I know where Tarantino got his blood-spurting geysers from.

Mo says:

Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) (1961)

Director: Akira Kurosawa. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Eijiro Tono, Tatsuya Nakadai. 110 min. Unrated. Japan. Action/Drama.

Kurosawa's black-and-white Samurai tales rarely fail to entertain. Mifune as a masterless Samurai walks into a town run by two competing gangster factions, and manages to weaken both sides by pitting them against each other. Sound familiar? This was later remade as A Fistful of Dollars by the great Sergio Leone (and even later as Last Man Standing), which is credited to have started the Spaghetti Western subgenre. Amazed again how well Kurosawa's camerawork offers a very accurate image of the considerable action taking place - but still Mifune's famous warrior gait is the simple component to cherish and remember.

PS: That first action sequence is sooooooo Star Wars cantina fight.

Mo says:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux) (2010)

Director: Xavier Beauvois. Cast: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale. 122 min. Rated R. France. Drama/History.

Based on the true story of eight French monks in 1996 Algeria, who refuse to leave their monastery in the light of overwhelming murderous threats by Islamic fundamentalists. The movie makes the wise decision of dedicating almost its entirety to one discussion: stay ... or leave? The debate climaxes in a beautiful scene at the end with the monks listening to Swan Lake in blissful silence. The screenplay tries to play it fair (philanthropist priests, imperialist French government; peaceful Muslim villagers, cutthroat Islamist terrorists). But let's face it - the message is one thing: Good Christians; bad Muslims.

PS: Read below, about another movie I coincidentally saw back-to-back with this one; different setting but exact same subject.

Mo says:

White Material (2009)

Director: Claire Denis. Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Isaach De Bankole. 106 min. France/Cameroon. Drama/War.

Huppert owns a coffee plantation in an unknown African country torn by civil war, and ignores every warning to leave the country before she and her family end up dead. Critical problem: not sure why she ignores the warnings and stays. And the screenplay makes no effort to give us the slightest inkling regarding this fuzzy aspect - which leads us to only one explanation: the lady is insane. Was that the purpose? To portray an insanely stubborn person, and the consequences of her decision? Tell me if you see any other logic in this award-winner.

PS: Read above, about another movie I coincidentally saw back-to-back with this one; different setting but exact same subject.

Mo says:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Parallax View (1974)

Director: Alan J.Pakula. Cast: Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, Hume Cronyn. 102 min. Rated R. Political/Thriller.

In an obvious reference to the JFK assassination, a senator is killed atop the Seattle Space Needle, the government calls it a closed lone-gunman case, and then, the reporters who witnessed the event are mysteriously killed one by one. Spiced with a touch of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange and Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, the late Pakula (expert in political conspiracies) rarely disappointed, but although the AFI classified this as one of the best thrillers ever, the slow pace can hardly be called thrilling. Beatty once again sticks his head into politics.

PS: This reminded me of a much more entertaining 1979 French film I saw as a kid with almost the exact same story, I as in Icarus (I ... comme Icare), starring Yves Montand. Hoping to watch it again.

Mo says:

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Barney's Version (2010)

Director: Richard J. Lewis. Cast: Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Bruce Greenwood, Scott Speedman, Mark Addy. 134 min. Rated R.

A story told from the heart. A very Jewish TV soap opera producer has one unsuccessful marriage after the other, until one night, during his nth wedding party ... it really happens. No matter how much you disregard love at first sight, this one's believable. Actually, this is a movie composed entirely of real people, real relationships, and real tragedies. Cherish life, respect life, observe its taboos, while it still lasts. And like always, Hoffman excels.

Mo says:

A Short Film About Killing (Krótki film o zabijaniu) (1988)

Director: Krysztof Kieslowski. Cast: Miraslaw Baka, Krysztof Globisz, Jan Tesarz. 84 min. Poland. Crime/Drama.

The fifth film in Kieslowki's Decalogue based on the Ten Commandments; obviously, this one aiming for "Thou shalt not kill". A 20-year old low-life murders a taxicab driver for no reason, and a young lawyer fails to save him from capital punishment. Kieslowski maintains his depressing coloring of Warsaw's cold streets, and dissects an execution sequence that will make one cringe, forcing one to think twice about the death penalty. No offense to Kieslowski fans, but even though he did it later, Lars von Trier nails the same message much stronger in his 2000 film, Dancer in the Dark.

PS: Nevertheless, I'll be looking forward to A Short Film About Love.

Mo says:

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Director: John Cassavetes. Cast: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper. 155 min. Rated R. Drama.
This is a devastating film. An insane mother, and some insane contributing camerawork, give a very convincing portrayal of how one's environment (including the husband, the mother-in-law, even the doctor) can easily push one over the limit and into insanity, with no relief in sight. Dizzying performances by Rowlands and the late Peter Falk, making you think their dialogue must have been improvised to create such an impact, as writing such back-and-forth dialogue would be nearly impossible. Forget the production date; this movie is as good as new.

PS: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was made one year after this. Something must have been in the air those years.

Mo says:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Don't Look Back (Ne te retourne pas) (2009)

Director: Marina de Van. Cast: Monica Bellucci, Sophie Marceau, Andrea Di Stefano. 111 min. France/Italy/Luxembourg/Belgium. Drama/Mystery.

A psychological drama with a significant twist at the end. Sophie Marceau is happily married with two kids, but interested in delving into her shadowy childhood. This sets into motion strange events: slowly she metamorphoses into Monica Bellucci - family and facial features and all. Imagine a person whose face is literally half-Marceau and half-Bellucci ... and realize that this is a creepy movie. Intriguing, and the ending connects the dots quite well, but Christian Bale's 2004 Machinist does it better.

Mo says: