Brian's Capsule Reviews

Short reviews of films

Lola (1961)

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Jacques Demy’s first feature film showcases a lot of the elements that would later make up his most famous films: a large cast of characters with interconnecting storylines, and lots and lots of romantic longing, often unfulfilled. In this case, a young man recognizes a cabaret dancer as an old crush and falls in love with her, while she ignores his attentions in favor of the man who fathered her child before disappearing. It’s an interesting film from an emotional standpoint, but it’s clear early on that the narrative is structured in such a way that some characters’ happiness (if they found it) would mean unhappiness for others. It’s a situation that simultaneously undermines and heightens audience sympathies, as it’s apparent each character’s feelings and actions will directly affect another’s. Nevertheless, I think it’s a very generous movie in its way, presenting each of its characters as basically worthy of our sympathy, and taking their problems and needs seriously, even if many of them end the movie with a great deal of sadness. 9/10


May 4, 2014 Posted by | Demy, Jacques | Leave a comment

The Monuments Men (2014)

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George Clooney has now directed five movies, and sadly, it remains the case that only Good Night, and Good Luck shows any particular filmmaking skill. This film is based on a historical episode that is interesting enough to provide the plot for a good movie, in which a special Army division was tasked with saving major works of art from the marauding Nazis during World War II. Clooney even assembles a cast that seems ideal, with himself, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin all included. So it’s a bit disappointing that the results fall so flat. Clooney seems to have a difficult time figuring out the tone he wants, veering between Coen-lite comedy to serious war drama while cutting awkwardly between separate narrative strands, and despite the distinguished cast, few of the actors are given much to do (Clooney is at least magnanimous to make his character as dull as the others). It’s clear that the film is simply too ambitious for Clooney’s limited behind-the-camera talents, because the opportunity was plainly there for something much better than this to come out of it. 5/10

May 4, 2014 Posted by | Clooney, George | Leave a comment

Days of Being Wild (1990)

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Wong Kar-Wai’s second film is a good companion piece to his first, As Tears Go By, and in fact I saw them on a double bill on the same afternoon. Andy Lau once again stars, this time as a young man who romances two women, only to break up with both and leave them heartbroken. The film is more stylistically advanced and refined than Tears, and clearly maps out an emotional palette that points the way to later films such as In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express, which would be his next film. That said, Wong is a director that I have a hard time coming up with much to say about. His films wear their hearts on their sleeves, and work almost purely on an emotional level that defies written criticism and analysis, at least for me. Their pleasures are immediately apparent and presented without artifice or subtlety. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, and in fact I admire Wong’s uninhibited open-heartedness and lack of cynicism. They’re just hard to say much about, is all. 8/10

May 4, 2014 Posted by | Wong Kar-Wai | Leave a comment

As Tears Go By (1988)

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Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai’s first film is an occasionally dark but still quite charming little crime drama. As with his other films, this one feels like it’s nothing if not sincere, and despite the rough subject matter, it seems generally good-natured and even endearing. Andy Lau stars as Wah, a gangster who is tasked with watching his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) while she recovers from illness, which leads to the two of them falling in love despite Wah’s ever-deeper involvement with some rough underworld types. As is common with first films, it can feel uneven and even amateurish at times, but all in all it’s a fairly advanced Wong Kar Wai film despite being his debut. It’s not one of his greatest films, but it’s worth seeing and works well on its own terms. 8/10

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Wong Kar-Wai | Leave a comment

The Insider (1999)

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This movie is a personal favorite of mine, and I’ve seen it any number of times through the years. Watching it again recently, though, for the first time in maybe close to a decade, I saw it in a little bit different of a light. What I noticed first and foremost this time is just how great Russell Crowe is in the role of Jeffrey Wigand, a former cigarette company executive that exposes some of the more unseemly aspects of the industry. Crowe’s performance was acclaimed in real time, it’s true, but I think the passage of time has only made it stronger. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that Crowe never again came close to being so good. But mostly, it’s just a terrific role, which layers so many different emotions on at once. For example, look at the scene in which Wigand is finally interviewed, with all of his tightly controlled rage plain to see, but also tempered by a feeling of relief, finally having the chance to unload his conscience. At the risk of hyperbole, I would say that it’s one of the single greatest film performances I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, all of director Michael Mann’s formidable skills as a director are on display as well. He makes a very dialogue-heavy film into a very taut corporate thriller, without being able to rely on any of the cliches of the genre. He’s one of my favorite filmmakers, and this is his greatest masterpiece. It’s just a wonderful film in every way. 10/10

April 7, 2014 Posted by | *Highest recommendations*, Mann, Michael | Leave a comment

Her (2013)

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Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a lonely man who starts up a romance with his computer operating system (named Samantha, and voiced by Scarlett Johansson). A new Spike Jonze film always has come to be a pretty big cinematic event, and again with this film I feel taken aback by how genuinely creative, unique, warm-hearted and sincere it is. What seems like a flimsy, even silly premise is given thoughtful treatment, and the film goes in unexpected but poignant directions. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy with a nagging concern I had, which is that Samantha is essentially a corporate product designed to keep the attention of its owner. How much of her emotional experience is really real, and how much of it is simply the result of cynical corporate design? Jonze, as writer-director, seems to take their romance at face value for much of the film, but to me, the question hung around like the proverbial elephant in the room. I mean, it matters, right? Before the end of the film, though, events occur that made me wonder if this wasn’t on Jonze’s mind, too, so chalk another one up to this being a genuinely unpredictable film. At any rate, it is, like I said, a very unique film, and the performances are all very good, especially those by Amy Adams, and yes, Phoenix, who I usually can’t really stand. But such is the power of this very fine film, and my admiration for Jonze continues to grow. 9/10

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Jonze, Spike | Leave a comment

Cries and Whispers (1972)

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It’s hard for me to know what to say about this film, except that it makes me wonder if I’m not dead inside. Reading various reviews of the film, I see a lot about how powerful the film is for its depiction of pain and hatred, but I confess that I had little emotional reaction at all. And … well, I realize I’m being maximally uncharitable here, but it’s a little unsettling that so much writing about this film says pretty much exactly the same thing. Read any random review and you’re likely to get a lot of talk about how much of the color red is in the film, how wonderful and sensitive the character of Anna the servant is, how Bergman refuses to look away from either the physical or emotional pain the characters are feeling, and so on. It’s a little weird, isn’t it? For myself, I suspect that this film remains popular for exactly this reason – it’s easy to write about, and it gives writers an easy opportunity to get all profound in discussing their own reactions. I don’t doubt the technical mastery of Bergman and his collaborators here, and I don’t doubt Bergman’s own sincerity in making the film. But to me it feels like an overblown piece of austere melodrama, bordering on outright banality, and because I’m probably dead inside, it left me unmoved. 5/10

April 4, 2014 Posted by | Bergman, Ingmar | Leave a comment

The Past (2013)

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Iranian director Asghar Farhadi directed what I thought was the best movie of 2011, A Separation. This is his followup film, about an Iranian man traveling to Paris to formally divorce the French wife he left behind years ago. Unfortunately, it’s a big step down from A Separation, feeling forced and schematic where the previous film felt natural and genuinely insightful. It’s plotted in such a way that it’s essentially a series of big, plot-twisting revelations, which gets tiring even if the revelations are actually interesting or surprising, but most are easily anticipating to all but the characters themselves. It’s not like there isn’t anything to admire in the film, and I did like some of the performances, especially Ali Mosaffa in the central role, and Pauline Burlet, who brings real poignancy to an otherwise cliched role of a resentful teenager (WITH BIG SECRETS!). Overall, though, the film is easily forgettable. 6/10

March 31, 2014 Posted by | Farhadi, Asghar | Leave a comment

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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I suppose there are two ways to view Scorsese’s three-hour Wall Street opus. From one perspective, it’s quickly paced (despite its run time) and always compelling, with a terrific performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as a degenerate Wall Street trader with an insatiable appetite for debauchery. It’s often hilariously funny and is altogether a work of stunning vitality from a seventy-year-old director. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but think that it accomplishes fairly little with its three-hour run time. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare it to Scorsese’s earlier work, but I can’t help but think of, say, Goodfellas, and the way it meticulously detailed the mob world, from operations to insider political workings to day-to-day minutiae. This film has none of that, and in fact seems to actively shy away from providing a more in-depth look at the world of high finance, and instead seems content to be merely a series of sex-and-drugs episodes. It’s vaguely disappointing, because the filmmakers seem to position the film as a sort of expose of how the 1% live, but at the fundamental level this is just a fairly banal story of rogue Wall Streeters gone bad. Of course, it’s still a very good film; I just think it falls short of what it could have accomplished (and maybe set out to). 8/10

March 31, 2014 Posted by | Scorsese, Martin | Leave a comment

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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Spielberg’s classic has never been a personal favorite of mine, and on the whole, I prefer the vision of alien visitation that Spielberg himself put forth in Close Encounters of the Third Kind much more than the way he reduces a lost alien to a family pet in this film. That said, though, I guess the movie holds up reasonably well today, and if nothing else, it’s a well-made movie with a well-told story. In fact, I don’t have any real complaints about it, aside from the fact that, despite being well-told, the story just isn’t all that interesting to me. It’s weird to me that it gives E.T. such a short end of the character stick, making him some kind of weird hybrid of slapstick comic relief and ethereal wisdom, while giving us a few tantalizing looks at what he might be able to do in a movie that took him a little more seriously. I think this could have been done within the context of the kids movie that Spielberg was trying to make, but the lack of interest in him as a character is a little frustrating. Nonetheless, the movie’s still quite watchable, and Spielberg actually finds child actors in this one who are not annoying, which is always a hit-or-miss proposition for him. I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m so down on the movie; it’s just not a favorite. 8/10

March 28, 2014 Posted by | Spielberg, Steven | Leave a comment

Cast Away (2000)

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Once upon a time, before he got derailed his career with motion capture silliness, Robert Zemeckis was one of the most ingenious directors working in big-budget Hollywood. Cast Away is his last great film, about a man (Tom Hanks) stranded on a Pacific island for several years after a plane crash. The crash scene itself is quite brilliant, but what struck me more than ever during my most recent viewing of the film is how powerful the scenes are when Hanks’s character returns to civilization (I remember this being given away in the previews before the film’s release, so I don’t feel guilty about spoiling it here). These late sequences feature some of Hanks’s best acting of his career, and although I don’t remember them generating any real admiration at the time of the film’s release, I think they’re really quite beautiful and profound. Of course, the sequences actually set on the island have always been generally well-regarded, but what really makes the movie to me is the decision by the filmmakers to give Hanks’s character a full arc (something missing from, say, the recent All Is Lost). It’s the kind of thing that a lot of big-studio movies don’t really do much of, and in retrospect the decision looks more daring to me than it did at the time. At any rate, the film has always had a strong emotional pull over me, and every time I see it, that pull gets stronger. 10/10

March 28, 2014 Posted by | *Highest recommendations*, Zemeckis, Robert | Leave a comment

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

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The term “Oscar bait” is used frequently but is often misapplied, as if every period piece released late in the year deserves suspicion and scorn. I think it’s best applied to a film like this one, that self-consciously takes on attention-grabbing subject matter (in this case, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) while having little to add in terms of character insight, political perspective, or even notable filmmaking chops. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a Texas shitkicker type who is diagnosed with HIV in 1985, and resorts to unconventional means to acquire the drugs he needs to save his life. I’m honestly at a loss to see what the point of the film is, but I’m awfully tired of movies that take on politically charged subjects and then strip away any kind of controversy, and I’m not really sure why one would make a movie like this about a straight character. I mean, the real story of the early AIDS era was how research and treatment options were hindered by prejudice against homosexuals, and the dire toll these attitudes took, and this film sort of spits in the eye of that terrible legacy by backgrounding it in favor of a guy who simply is not very interesting and who has a story that is not terribly compelling in the context of his circumstances. I also think it’s tacky that a transgender character (played by Jared Leto) is used primarily for a kind of demeaning comic relief, the target for Woodruff’s homophobic jokes. For all the politically based objections I have, though, I would also point out that it’s just not much of a film anyway. It’s made with an utter lack of distinction by director Jean-Marc Vallée, the kind of film that has little to offer that can’t be gleaned by simply watching the two-minute trailer made for it. It’s the year’s best example of the Academy’s relentlessly middlebrow taste, having received 6 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. 3/10

January 19, 2014 Posted by | Vallée, Jean-Marc | Leave a comment

American Hustle (2013)

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David O. Russell’s name doesn’t come quickly to mind when I’m thinking about today’s great filmmakers, but maybe he’s earned a right to be on that list. He just keeps making movies that I like, and this one is probably his best yet. Christian Bale and Amy Adams (doing perhaps her best work) play Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, con artists involved with a political scandal in 1970s New Jersey (loosely based on the real-life ABSCAM scandal). Rounding out a uniformly excellent cast are Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K. and Jennifer Lawrence, who at this point of her career can simply do no wrong. This is a wonderful film, ingeniously structured and full of character detail, but with an unforced and leisurely pace. It’s well over two hours long, but I would have been happy to see a half hour longer or perhaps even more; as it was, as it wound down I was disappointed to realize that it was about to end. What really sets it apart, though, is the moral weight the film carries. Far from being another film about political corruption, the film has an actual point of view with genuinely complicated and even contradictory ethical qualms about the actions of its characters, and doesn’t offer easy idealistic answers. This is one of the very best films of the year, and seems destined to become a personal favorite. 10/10

January 8, 2014 Posted by | *Highest recommendations*, Russell, David O. | Leave a comment

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

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I always distrust my first reactions to the Coens’ work, because so often they subvert my expectations and it’s hard to have a clear-eyed view of any of their films on first viewing. That said, sometimes you can just tell when a movie will grow on you, and a couple weeks after seeing this one, I think it’s safe to say this is one of those times. Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, a folk singer in early-1960s New York, who is trying to make a name for himself while his personal life crumbles. As has become custom for the Coens, especially since No Country for Old Men, the story unfolds in ways that are unexpected and unsettling and navigates through some difficult emotional terrain. I think a lot of people (like myself) who wonder if their life is on the right track will have some emotional scabs picked by the film, even if they (like myself) don’t see a ton of direct parallels between themselves and Llewyn in terms of personality or disposition. Isaac is terrific in his role, and again as usual for the Coens, the film is populated by rich supporting characters. That said, this film is most unusual for the Coens in some key ways; they’ve never made a movie soaked like this one in such clear empathy for their characters. Though their films usually have very rich emotional currents, those emotions tend to be observed from a distance instead of closely felt, but that’s not the case here. In fact, the weakest aspect of the movie might be the overtly Coen-ish humor, often leading to punchlines that don’t quite seem properly timed or otherwise seem emotionally out of place. It’s an interesting development for the brothers, and I’ll be interested to see how this carries forward into their future work. I’m sure that either way, they’ll keep me off my toes. 9/10

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Coen, Ethan, Coen, Joel | Leave a comment

The Thin Red Line (1998)

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When this was originally released, it seemed like the entire story about the film was director Terrence Malick’s prior 20-year absence from filmmaking. Watched now, though, what remains is an artfully composed war film that never quite reaches the level of poignancy that it seems to be aiming for. Malick films his battle scenes with an elegance that is unique among war films, and if nothing else the film is more than worth watching for that alone. His handling of the actual characters leaves something to be desired, though. Many characters are given the privilege of voiceover narration to convey their inner thoughts, but the only character that really had much of an impact on me in this regard was that of Nick Nolte. He plays an officer whose words betray doubts and discontent that he does not show visibly, and the conflict between his thoughts and deeds is very rich grounds for exploration. Other characters come off less well, particularly the soldier played by Jim Caviezel, who seems preoccupied by spiritual and metaphysical matters that feel more like authorial statements by Malick than an actual character. Still, despite a few reservations, I very much admire the film and Malick’s attempt to make a war movie with a genuinely humanistic outlook at the center. 9/10

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Malick, Terrence | Leave a comment

Blue Jasmine (2013)

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It’s sometimes hard to know where an annoying character ends and an annoying performance begins, given the overlap that often occurs. But I think Cate Blanchett’s performance as Jasmine, a divorced and disgraced socialite, qualifies squarely as both. Certainly there’s little doubt to be had about the former, as Jasmine is thoroughly unlikable and almost perversely unsympathetic, with a narcissism that overwhelms everything in her sights. The harder question is about Blanchett’s performance, and frankly I’m not really inclined to cut her much slack. She plays Jasmine as a ball of nervous tics and imperious pronouncements, and it’s all so darned actor-y. As a film, Blue Jasmine seems pretty hateful overall, bringing to mind James L. Brooks’s Spanglish, which similarly conspires to conceive of a detestable character and then revel in hating her. It’s quite obnoxious, and it isn’t helped by Allen’s lazy characterizations of supporting roles, lame plotting, and stiflingly curmudgeonly worldview. I’ve never really been a big fan of Allen, but this seems like a low point for him nonetheless. 2/10

January 2, 2014 Posted by | Allen, Woody | Leave a comment

Purple Noon (1960)

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Alain Delon’s first major role was as Tom Ripley in this French adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Ripley sets out to steal the identity of rich layabout Philippe Greenleaf (played by Maurice Ronet) by killing him and simply taking his place through forgery and deception. Surprisingly, his scheme is pretty clever and well thought out; it doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief to think that he could just about pull the scheme off. It’s refreshing to see a plot like this that’s so well conceived and executed, and it’s easy to see how Delon became a star on the strength of his performance here. The real star of the film for me, though, is the cinematography by Henri Decaë. Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, an amazing photographic document of the Italian coast of the time, with some of the most splendid color in the history of film. And it matters, too, because it not only suits (and actually to a large degree sets) the mood of the film, but it also is a perfect representation of Ripley’s state of mind, a fully realized depiction of the idealized way that he sees his surroundings. Decaë was one of the titans of his profession, I believe, but this is an amazing accomplishment, and it lifts the film from a well made and unusual thriller to something very special. 10/10

January 1, 2014 Posted by | *Highest recommendations*, Clément, René | Leave a comment

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

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A fairly early Buster Keaton feature, Sherlock Jr. runs pretty short (only about 45 minutes) and its story has a fairly thrown-together quality, as if a bunch of random ideas for setpieces had been thrown together and haphazardly and given a thin connecting narrative. Still, it’s pretty funny, and has one particularly elaborate scene that is as technically accomplished as anything I’ve seen in any movie ever, in which Keaton’s character enters a movie, through the screen, and gets caught by surprise by changes of scenery and editing. It’s a mind-bogglingly complicated piece of filmmaking, and the sheer creativity on display is a wonder. If the rest of the movie doesn’t quite rise to that level, oh well, because it’s still full of the kinds of clever gags and frankly terrifying stuntwork that Keaton excelled at. 9/10

January 1, 2014 Posted by | Keaton, Buster | Leave a comment

Cul-de-sac (1966)

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A dysfunctional couple (played by Donald Pleasence and Françoise Dorléac) living in a remote English castle are terrorized for two days by a criminal (Lionel Stander) on the run. I guess the idea is that this is the setup for a horror movie, but the film as directed by Roman Polanski is more of a darkly humorous goof than anything all that frightening. It’s an odd movie, really, deriving a lot of its effect from the images of the castle and its surroundings. Seriously, whatever location scout first found this place should get a lot of the credit for why the movie works as well as it does. As far as the rest of it goes, it’s fitfully amusing, with Polanski getting most of his humor from mocking Pleasence’s character, who is a nervous ball of slightly androgynous energy. There are some clever moments, such as when Stander’s heavy has to pose as a butler for the benefit of some visitors, but all in all the movie isn’t particularly ingenious in its plotting and is uneven in its effect. 6/10

December 26, 2013 Posted by | Polanski, Roman | Leave a comment

Philomena (2013)

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(Warning: SPOILER ALERT herein) Sometimes the marketing for a movie doesn’t really represent the actual movie all that well, and thankfully, this is one of those times. The previews for Philomena made it look like a schmaltzy story about an endearingly daffy old woman (played by Judi Dench) tracking down her long-lost son, but the actual film is more serious-minded and weighty than that. It turns out that Philomena’s son was taken from her when she was a teenager sent to a convent when her family was shamed by her pregnancy, and sold to an American couple by the nuns. Once in America, he eventually grows up to be a Republican Party operative who has to hide his homosexuality for the sake of his career. I found that to be a poignant turn, in the way that his sexual oppression rhymes with Philomena’s, with both of their lives fundamentally altered by different manifestations of the same rigid sexual morality. Director Frears turns in a strong, workmanlike effort here, managing mostly low-key performances from Dench and Steve Coogan while avoiding getting bogged down by either the schmaltzier aspects of the story or losing it in self-righteous dudgeon. It’s a good film and a nice surprise. 8/10

December 26, 2013 Posted by | Frears, Stephen | Leave a comment