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Zero Days (2016)
Well-Done, Disturbing Documentary
Zero Days is an important documentary devoted much needed attention to the issue of cyberwarfare, focusing on a case study of the Stuxnet attack. It provides a behind the scenes take on the discovery and the development of the virus, as well as the political developments that caused it to spiral out of control.
Alex Gibney does a good job of explaining the technical aspects of the computer virus, as well as the political context that spurred the United States and Israel to develop the computer virus. He assembles a good cast of interviewees from various perspectives on the issue. Although Gibney has a definite viewpoint, he gives both sides of the question a hearing.
Although I had previously watched news coverage dealing with Stuxnet, this documentary goes far more in depth, making good use of inside sources within the NSA. In particular, Gibney examines the split that emerged between the United States and Israel over the use of the virus, ultimately culminating in a near disaster. The film provides a disturbing warning of how the American and Israeli governments have potentially opened a Pandora's box.
This film is important viewing that should be seen by everyone interested in current events or concerned over the implications of American foreign policy.
Decent If Dry Documentary
Hieronymus Bosch: Touched By the Devil follows the development of an art exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Bosch's birth at a museum in the artist's hometown. Although the film requires a keen attention span and leaves one wishing to learn more about the artist, it offers good insights about the art world.
The documentary is at its best when focusing on the intricacies of constructing an art exhibition. The curators are faced with numerous issues, not the least of which is determining which paintings are actually works by Bosch. They employ some surprisingly high tech methods in their quest for the truth. Some of the best moments in the film are when a curator tells someone whether the work they've volunteered for the exhibition is - or isn't - by Bosch.
However, the film also digs into the seamier side of the art world. We encounter collectors who purchase art works they don't appreciate simply for their value as an investment. Viewers also get a look at the wrangling that goes on when one museum tries to borrow an art work from another, with the curators at a certain Spanish museum displaying an unseemly glee over the fact that they have more works by the Dutch Bosch than Bosch's hometown.
The main challenge facing a documentary dealing with Hieronymus Bosch is that little is actually known about his life. Even with this restriction, it would have been nice if the curators had engaged in a bit of speculation about what forces molded his distinctive vision. Was he an early surrealist? Was he mentally ill? Even so, the film is worthwhile for those who are interested in art.
Maya & Marty (2016)
Fun Variety Show
"Maya and Marty in Manhattan" is a well-done revival of the variety show format, with a fun blend of music and comedy. Both Maya Rudolph and Martin Short bring a surplus of comedic talent to the proceedings, bolstered by some celebrity guests.
The comic skits are similar to what you'd see on Saturday Night Live, a mixture of pop culture spoofs and political satire. Martin Short also brings back his character Jiminy Glick. The writing for these skits, at least in the first episode, is spot on.
If the pilot is any indication, the music should also be a selling point. Miley Cyrus gave a strong performance, with Maya Rudolph joining her to demonstrate a mean set of pipes as well. The inclusion of a Broadway dance performance by Savion Glover, while not as strong, offered a change of pace.
The only weak spot is that both Rudolph and Short demonstrate a tendency to stick to familiar territory. Rudolph dips into her repertoire of weird accents at least twice, while Short, as mentioned earlier, resurrects Jiminy Glick with mixed results, as he and Larry David end up just laughing at their own skit.
Head of the Family (1996)
Horror Comedy with No Real Laughs or Scares
Head of the Family is an extremely weak effort from Full Moon Pictures, failing at being a comedy or a horror film. Although it boasts some decent make-up effects and a decent performance by J. W. Perra, it otherwise offers little of interest.
The film follows an adulterous couple that blackmails the local family of freaks into disposing of the female's lowlife husband. Unsurprisingly, things start to go downhill when they try to wheedle money out of the family.
Aside from a weak, predictable plot, the film suffers from numerous other problems. The acting is mostly awful, with Jacqueline Lovell especially poor as the distaff half of the murderous couple. The only actor who is remotely compelling is J. W. Perra as the eponymous head. The actors are not helped by a terrible script which reduces each character to the most basic one note.
Other than Perra's performance and some good makeup, the only thing this film has to offer is its brevity and copious nudity from Lovell.
Guilty Pleasures (2010)
Interesting Take on a Mundane Subject
A documentary on Harlequin romance novels might not seem like a particularly interesting prospect, but Guilty Pleasures manages to be both insightful and at times moving. It features little of the kitsch one would expect from such a topic. The film examines the lives of three women who are avid Harlequin readers, as well as a male model and an author involved in producing the books.
The women depicted have all moved beyond simply reading the books to allowing what they read to shape their lives. For some, this is constructive, as in the case of a Japanese housewife inspired to take up ballroom dancing. However, in other cases the novels provide a means to fill the emptiness of otherwise unfulfilling lives, as in the case of an Indian woman in a loveless marriage. She bases her expectations of love on what she reads in the novels, even though her husband has abandoned her.
At its best, Guilty Pleasures is a sad look at how pop culture shapes people's mindsets and expectations of the world. Where people once turned to religion or philosophy to fill voids in their lives, they now look to third rate novels. Although the film is far from maudlin, it opens a door into how some people try to cope with the sadness of their lives.
Well Done If Pretentious
Youth is an interesting if overly artsy character study examining an elderly composer staying at a resort with his friend, an aging director. The composer has to deal with various personal problems as well as a request to perform for the Queen of England.
The film mainly succeeds on the basis of its performances. Caine is excellent as usual as the composer, while Harvey Keitel does well as a director at the end of his tether. However, the stand out of the cast is Rachel Weisz, who plays Caine's daughter, jilted by her husband, the son of Harvey Keitel's character. Weisz captures her character's pain and sense of betrayal and should have earned an Oscar nomination for her role.
Although she has received critical acclaim for her role, Jane Fonda's performance is rather weak. Her character is a one note Hollywood actress on the outs with Keitel, and her appearance is little more than a cameo.
The main problem besetting Youth is its at times weak writing. The film is overly pretentious, relying too much on quirky set pieces and dream sequences rather than on character development. Keitel's character in particular goes in a direction that the script does not set up at all. Luckily, the strong acting makes up for the faults in the writing.
Where to Invade Next (2015)
Moore Serious than Usual
Where to Invade Next marks something of a change for Michael Moore. Although it features his usual snark and left wing views, it takes a more serious approach to its subject than previous Moore outings. Moore visits various countries, mostly in Europe, to show government policies he thinks the United States should adopt. Among the countries he visits are Italy, France, Slovenia, Iceland, Finland, and Tunisia.
Rather than examining every aspect of the countries he visits, he focuses on one or two policies he thinks are especially important. For example, in Italy, he looks at the amount of vacation time allotted to workers and the strength of Italian unions. Conservative critics will inevitably complain that he fails to give consideration to the flaws of these countries. However, Moore himself admits in the film that none of the countries profiled are perfect.
Moreover, Moore at times goes out of his way to explore the most challenging aspects of the other countries' policies, including aspects most Americans wouldn't be comfortable with. For example, when discussing the Norwegian criminal justice system, he considers the light twenty-one year sentence given to Anders Brevik, the white supremacist terrorist who killed over seventy people. As Moore makes clear, even policies he supports have downsides.
Over all, the film is well worth watching and shows a more serious side of Moore as a filmmaker. That said, towards the end it starts to suffer from pacing issues, and the film could easily have been ten to fifteen minutes shorter. I personally would have ended the movie with the interview with the Icelandic banker who describes why she wouldn't have wanted to live in the United States. What she said summed up the film as a whole and would have made a perfect conclusion.
The Alpha Incident (1978)
A Poor Man's Andromeda Strain
The Alpha Incident is basically a poor man's version of The Andromeda Strain with elements of Scanners and A Nightmare on Elm Street mixed in for good measure. It suffers from low production values and a claustrophobic setting.
When a space probe returns to earth with a deadly disease, the federal government in its wisdom decides to transport it cross country by train with only one agent to guard it. Naturally, someone exposes themselves to the disease and several people end up quarantined in a rural train station.
The major factor working against this film, other than its obvious plagiarizing of The Andromeda Strain, is its limited budget. Much of the screen time is spent watching people doing nothing in a train station. When we go elsewhere to see efforts to cure the disease, the NASA laboratory looks to be a high school chemistry lab. Even much of the camera work is shoddy, with a foggy look like a dream sequence.
The Patriot (1986)
Lame, Predictable Action Movie
The Patriot is a poorly written action thriller that doesn't even manage a coherent ending. It has a stereotypical action plot, in which a group of terrorists steal some nuclear warheads and a renegade Special Forces operative have to track them down. However, it does not have any logic or well-drawn characters.
The film fails on multiple levels. First, the protagonist seems like the last guy you would put in charge of tracking down some lost nuclear warheads. He is first introduced to us through a bar fight in which he takes some money, then lies about having money to a girl he borrowed money from. He gets involved in the warhead chase when his girlfriend discovers something near an oil rig that he just knows came from a nuclear weapon, and subsequently gets killed. When the Navy turns to him to track the bomb down, his first priority is to seduce an old girlfriend. Yeah, I'd totally feel confident entrusting our national security to this guy.
The Patriot also suffers from severe predictability. For example, when Ryder meets with the Navy admiral in charge of the warhead hunt (Leslie Nielson in a rare post-Airplane serious role), we immediately know that the Admiral's antsy assistant is a traitor. When we meet the villains' idiotic henchmen, we know the main villain will eventually dispose of them.
Perhaps worst of all, the film's ending is so poorly done it's difficult to tell what happened. At the climax, Ryder is trying to defuse a nuclear weapon on a countdown to detonation. (Why the villain had the countdown going is never adequately explained, as he was in the same place as the fracking bomb!) He goes to cut a wire which will either end the countdown or immediately detonate it. The scene then fades to white, and we next see a country road where Ryder picks up a hitchhiking girl he previously met at a bar. So, did he successfully defuse the bomb, or is the country road some strange metaphor for the afterlife?
The only redeeming feature of this movie is the late Stack Pierce's performance as the film's main villain. Unlike the other villains, who come off as either moronic or borderline insane, Pierce comes across as scarily competent, so much so that one wishes the film had been about him.
The Alien Factor (1978)
Half Decent Monster Movie
The Alien Factor is a halfway decent low budget monster movie, following a small Maryland town plunged into chaos when several creatures intended for an intergalactic zoo are accidentally released. The film features low budget but surprisingly effective monsters, but it is hampered by stilted dialogue and wooden acting.
The main thing The Alien Factor has going for it is its monster costumes. Although all of the monsters - with one exception - are obviously guys in suits, the suits themselves aren't that bad looking. Furthermore, the monster designs are creative and not just cookie cutter creatures you've seen a thousand times. The insectoid alien was especially impressive.
However, good creature effects alone do not a great monster movie make. The film suffers from a weak script with awkward-sounding dialogue. The script never focuses on a single protagonist, weakening the overall plot. Moreover, the twist ending is telegraphed well in advanced. Still, this is a good monster movie for the undemanding or a boring afternoon.
The Human Face of Big Data (2014)
The recent PBS special "The Human Face of Big Data" takes a look at recent developments in online information gathering, particularly as it affects individuals. The program, sponsored by technology companies such as Cisco, takes an overly optimistic view of these technological developments, at times willfully ignoring their down sides.
The film looks at information gathering in a number of areas, ranging from better understanding of DNA and the genome to the monitoring of internet searches. Overall, it puts a positive spin on these developments, with much of the commentary coming from industry representatives. For example, the founder of 23andme holds forth on how easy it will be to test people's DNA in the near future, never bothering to consider that the society she's describing is basically Gattaca.
The Human Face of Big Data does have a point, in that much of the technology described can be very beneficial if used with circumspection and caution. However, this circumspection requires that we squarely confront the potential dangers posed by these developments, not paper them over with corporate public relations.
Towards the end, the film does briefly consider "the dark side" of this technology, but not in much detail. This cautionary note is overwhelmed by the plaudits that have come before it. The film works best as a start to a conversation over very complex issue.
A Year in Space (2015)
An Interesting Look at Space Travel
I recently watched an episode of "A Year in Space," shown on my local PBS station to mark Scott Kelly's return from the International Space Station. It provides interesting insights into both the breathtaking and the mundane aspects of space exploration.
The program followed Kelly through his year in space, going from his preparation for the stay to his time on the station. It gives particular attention to day to day life on the station, considering the scientific experiments they performed and the importance of fresh food. It also looks at the impact of Kelly's absence on his family, including interviews with his brother and daughter.
This focus on the quotidian aspects of space travel gives viewers keener insight into the space program than programs which focus on technological wonders. In the end, astronauts are humans, albeit highly accomplished ones, like you or me. They have the same biological needs as the average person, and indeed Kelly's mission is threatened by a lack of fresh food after two cargo ships crash.
That said, the show does not neglect the more spectacular aspects of space travel. The show offers some fantastic footage of the aurora Borealis as filmed from space, as well as a moon rise filmed from the space station. It also explores the more exotic threats to the astronauts such as radiation and space junk.
If the series has a flaw, it's that the focus on Scott Kelly as an individual detracts from scientific explanations of various events. For example, it would have been good if there was a more detailed explanation of why two cargo ships in a row collapsed, or more information about the radiation that could potentially harm the astronauts. Nevertheless, it is well worth watching, offering insights into an astronaut's life you won't find elsewhere.
Lurking Fear (1994)
You'll Root for the Villains
Lurking Fear is a mediocre but still watchable adaptation of one of H. P. Lovecraft's more obscure stories. The film suffers from weak writing, less than compelling characters, and not especially threatening monsters, but benefits from some surprisingly strong performances, especially from the actors playing the human antagonists.
Long story made short, an ex-convict learns of a stash of money hidden in a graveyard, left there by his father, a thief. When he comes to dig it up, he finds himself caught in a battle between the townsfolk and some unholy creatures that, unsurprisingly, he has a connection to.
The pacing and writing in this film are poor. Most of the first half plays like a heist movie rather than a horror film, as a trio of gangsters crash the graveyard and try to take the ex-convict's loot. Furthermore, the creatures that stalk the graveyard aren't particularly menacing and easily fought off, leading one to wonder how they terrorized a town for twenty years. This isn't helped by the fact that the human protagonists, for the most part, come across as incompetent. Ashley Laurence's caustic action girl comes across as particularly obnoxious.
However, the film is salvaged by a decent cast. Character actor Vincent Schiavelli has a small role as a shifty undertaker, while Paul Mantee does well as a priest in charge of the church and graveyard. The highlights of the film are Jon Finch and Allison Mackie as two of the gangsters. One wishes the film had cast them as anti-hero protagonists. It would have been much more interesting.
Weak Horror "Comedy"
Spookies has enough weaknesses for two movies, which is fitting given that it is really two movies edited together into one. Although the resulting "film" is far from the worst example of this type of project (e.g. anything by Godfrey Ho), it highlights the weakest aspect of both films.
One plot line follows a group of friends who get caught in a haunted house populated by nightmarish demons. This plot thread is the better of the two, as it boasts some impressive make up effects and creature puppetry. A spider creature represents a particular highlight.
However, none of the characters are really fleshed out, and no protagonist emerges. Furthermore, the characters are so disparate that it is hard to imagine why they associate with one another. The group boasts a middle aged man and what appears to be a fifties juvenile delinquent.
The second plot, tangentially related to the first through some dialogue, but never intersecting, involves a sorcerer trying to resurrect his wife with the help of his werecat and some human sacrifices. The special effects in these segments are much weaker, with make up on the level of a children's Halloween costume.
The overall product is also weakened by mostly failed attempts at comedy, mostly consisting of the characters acting even more stupid than the typical horror victim. The film is worth watching, if at all, for some of the more interesting creature effects.
Hell Is Murky and So Is Scotland
Macbeth is a beautifully shot but in many respect weak adaption of Shakespeare's play. Although the major performers give it their best, they are undermined by at times odd choices in staging by the director. The result is pretty but ultimately underwhelming.
On one hand, the Scottish play has never been more beautiful. The cinematography makes excellent use of lighting, fog, smoke, and more fog. Scotland has never been gloomier, nor have battles looked more ominous. The excellent camera work is complemented by good use of the landscape of the Scottish highlands.
The acting, while not mind blowing, does the material justice. Michael Fassbender embodies Macbeth's descent into madness, slowly transitioning from reluctant killer into bloodthirsty tyrant. Although her performance is less showy, Marion Cotillard does well with her role as Lady Macbeth. She is helped by some changes from the original play that make her shift from ruthless killer to guilt ridden maniac more plausible.
However, this is undermined by some odd choices in direction, which range from distracting to outright ruining scenes. For instance, whenever a character is talking, the camera zooms into his or her face, to the point that it borders on self-parody. Moreover, in some scenes the overall murkiness is overdone, as in the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff where it is hard to tell what is going on through all the smoke.
One especially poorly executed scene is the banquet where Banquo's ghost appears. When Macbeth talks to the hired killers, he practically announces the murder to the entire room. While the convention of the stage whisper works in the theater, it makes no sense in a cinema production and renders Macbeth's attempts to feign surprise at Banquo's failure to appear comical.
In the end, this flawed execution undermines the beautiful camera work and effective performances.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Decent Historical Thriller
I did not come to Bridge of Spies with particularly high expectations. Based on the commercials, it looked like an attempt to put a patriotic spin on what was an extremely embarrassing international incident for the United States. However, even though Steven Spielberg brings his usual optimistic outlook to the proceedings, he still crafts a well done film, boosted by an excellent cast and a script by the Coen brothers.
Bridge of Spies focuses on the early 1960s prisoner exchange of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel for captured American pilot Francis Gary Powers and graduate student Frederick Pryor. Tom Hanks gives a strong performance as James Donovan, the American lawyer pressured into representing Abel and ultimately negotiating the exchange deal with the Soviets. He is backed by a strong supporting cast, especially Mark Rylance as Abel. Rylance deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the very least.
The proceedings are prevented from descending into historical pageantry through a strong, witty script by the Coen Brothers. The serious national security proceedings are permeated with humor, particularly from the deadpan Abel. The script also manages to maintain a certain level of suspense, not a small feat given that we know how the events turned out. At the same time, the film offers important messages about the true nature of patriotism, lessons that are all too needed nowadays since patriotism has been reduced to militaristic fervor.
The film does have some notable flaws. At times the pacing is rather slow, and the proceedings may lose the interest those with weaker attention spans. Furthermore, it downplays just how embarrassing the U-2 shoot down was for the United States, particularly after President Eisenhower was caught lying about the U-2 program at a US-Soviet summit. Nevertheless, the film is well worth your time.
Scream Queens (2015)
Mixed Bag of Humor and Horror
Scream Queens is a televised parody of the slasher genre from the creator of Glee. For a horror show on broadcast television, it delivers some surprisingly good gore and acidic humor. However, these are offset by serious flaws in the writing.
The premise is that sisters at the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority are being stalked by a psychotic killer in a devil costume. The killings appear to be related to the death of a sister during childbirth twenty years ago. The snide leaders of the sorority try to cope as a new pledge investigates, while a suspicious dean of students hovers in the background.
Scream Queens does a lot well. It dials up the violence about as far as you can on broadcast television, with some reasonably gruesome kills. Some of the humor is also well done, with a truly acidic wit. The acting, while not Emmy caliber, is decent for this type of show. Jamie Lee Curtis in particular seems to be having fun sending up the genre that made her famous.
However, the writing has some major weaknesses that threaten to undermine the show. It telegraphs plot developments well in advance, undermining any sense of suspense. For example, when a plan is made to scare pledges by shoving someone's head into an unplugged deep fryer, it doesn't take a genius to see what the outcome will be. Similarly, viewers should be able to figure out within a minute of her introduction which sorority sister has a connection to the ill-fated birth at the beginning of the show.
More damningly, even though the show skewers the alpha sisters for their homophobic and racist attitudes, the black and gay characters are all walking stereotypes. The black women in the show are depicted as either lazy, cowardly idiots or ill tempered witches, while the main gay character is an effeminate stereotype who tries to grope other men without their consent. The overall effect is to make the writers seem hypocritical.
Amusing Comic Book Adaptation
The 1990s UPN adaption of Scott Adams's Dilbert does a reasonably good job of capturing the comic strip's bleakly humorous vision of corporate life. Featuring excellent vocal talent and an anarchic sense of humor, it makes for worthwhile viewing despite some weak points.
Most of the elements familiar to fans of the strip are present – Dilbert and his coworkers, Dogbert, Elbonia, and the ever competent pointy- haired boss. The characters are backed up by a superb voice cast, with Chris Elliott a stand out as Dogbert. The voice actors become their characters, to the point that it seems odd to hear other actors voice them in later web-based adaptations.
The series also features an anarchic sense of humor. Although early episodes seem strained, trying almost too hard to be over the top, the writing soon settles into a comfortable groove, plunging Dilbert into a variety of absurd situations. Episodes involving a cute, Beanie Baby- like toy that evolves, electronic voting machines, and an off-site meeting are particular stand outs. An episode using a non-existent co- worker as an atheist metaphor is also memorable.
Dilbert suffered from some flaws. Aside from the weaker early episodes, the last few episodes, in a desperate attempt to attract more viewers, started over-relying on guest stars – including the professional wrestler Steve Austin – to the point that it weakened the show. Still, this series is well worth seeking out.
Monopoly Millionaires' Club (2015)
Monopoly Millionaires Club is one of the least interesting game shows I have ever seen. It involves no skill whatsoever while making its contestants, selected from lottery winners, play slightly altered versions of the same game over and over again. It offers nothing to maintain the viewers' interest.
In a thinly adapted version of the board game Monopoly, contestants – who get on the show by winning a lottery game of the same title – are selected from the studio audience to play a game. Although each contestant plays a different titled game, in the end they all boil down to the same thing. Contestants have to choose from various options, whether they be keys to a lock or limousines full of guests to fill hotel rooms, in order to reach a certain limit and get $100,000. The games are effectively a gamble, with the contestant having to choose whether to risk choosing the wrong option and losing all the money or settling for a smaller amount and splitting with the audience.
The games seem intrinsically designed to protect the producers from making a large pay out. The pressure is on the contestant to settle for a lower amount, as not only their own money is at stake, but also payments to everyone in their section of the audience, creating an element of peer pressure. Screw up, and you cheat not only yourself but the people sitting next to you. Even if you win the big prize, you are likely to lose it if you go for the million dollar payout at the end of the game.
Furthermore, the games' basis in chance diminishes the interest of the show. If you look at the really successful game shows such as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, they tend to have an element of skill, with the contestants' knowledge or ability to solve puzzles determining whether they win. Here, it all goes down to blind luck, with the odds heavily stacked by the producers. The show is further hindered by its extremely loud host and production design, which rob it of the charm of more successful shows.
Ultimately, this program is nothing more than an hour long advertisement for the lottery game of the same title. They even go so far as to feature short segments with lottery winners at a local studio playing games for smaller prizes. Not coincidentally, all the contestants in these segments came from the viewing area of the station I was watching it on, as if to drill into our minds that we too should buy a ticket.
Well Done if Inaccurate
Bat 21 is an obscure but intriguing Vietnam War movie. Avoiding the flag-waving jingoism of many other 1980s Vietnam films, it crafts a riveting tale of survival while chronicling the relationship between two men flung together by war. Hackman plays an Air Force Colonel shot down over South Vietnam, while Glover plays the pilot who guides him to safety.
Glover and Hackman are both believable in their roles, but what separates Bat*21 from so many other 80s war films is its eschewing of politics. We are not treated to tirades for or against the war, and equal consideration is given to the violence employed by both sides of the conflict. Viewers are made to feel just as uncomfortable by the destruction of a village full of Vietnamese civilians as they are by an American pilot being made to march through a mine field.
The main problem with Bat*21 is its lack of historical accuracy. The film takes a number of liberties with what happened. In particular, it plays down the fact that South Vietnamese soldiers were left without support during the rescue attempt, with casualties resulting. Furthermore, the final escape is played overly dramatically, with Hackman and Glover dodging American bombs while being chased by NVAs. Still, this is an entertaining, worthwhile film.
Still Alice (2014)
Still Alice is a moving examination of one woman's deterioration from early onset Alzheimer's and its effects on her family. It traces the early stages of her disease to the point where her personality begins to vanish. The film benefits from an excellent performance by Julianne Moore as well as a solid supporting cast. It succeeds in being moving while avoiding sentimentality.
The highlight of the film is Moore's performance, which captures the emotional devastation wrought by the disease without succumbing to histrionics. Moore uses subtle cues to convey Alzheimer's slow breakdown of her character's personality. Although it is unquestionably Moore's show, Alec Baldwin does well as her husband, steering a careful path between self-sacrificing saint and self-absorbed cad. Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth also do well in their smaller roles.
Still Alice also benefits from good camera work which conveys the character's condition. At several points in the film, the scenery around Moore blurs, leaving only her in focus. This camera trick gets her sense of confusion and dislocation across to a degree acting could not. The film also benefits from a non-judgmental tone, avoiding treating characters as either martyrs or villains.
The film has some flaws. Most of the characters other than Moore's are drawn in very broad strokes. There is also one unnecessary scene which was obviously intended to promote the Alzheimer's Foundation, a point that could have been gotten across much more subtly. Still, it's worth seeing just for Moore's performance.
Mr. Turner (2014)
Mr. Turner is a well-done biography of the painter J. M. W. Turner which manages to convey who he was without falling into the traps besetting many biopics. It benefits from excellent direction by Mike Leigh and great performances by Timothy Spall and Paul Jesson.
The film has an interesting structure, eschewing a conventional plot in favor of an impressionistic exploration of Turner's life. Mr. Turner ignores the painter's early years of struggle, choosing instead to start at middle age, when he had already achieved success. This structure allows an exploration of various aspects of his life and work, rather than a rote narrative of his life. Although it may try the patience of some, it rewards those who stick with it.
Mr. Turner's unique approach is buttressed by excellent performances from Spall and Jesson. Spall embodies Turner, conveying the man's passion and talent while also showing his flaws. Paul Jesson also does well as Turner's father, making us care about a character we know little about.
Another good point of the film is the way that it captures the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It does so not only through excellent costumes and set design, but also through oblique references to the issues and culture of the day. It throws in references to the debate over slavery, the question of how women should be educated, even the entertainment of the times.
The film does suffer at times from a failure to give proper background about some of the supporting characters. For example, does Turner have a close relationship with his housekeeper, or does he just sexually harass her? Furthermore, she appears to have some sort of skin disease at one point, but this is not elaborated on. Still, the film is well worth watching and will make you want to learn more about Turner.
Le vampire (1945)
Le Vampire is an interesting documentary about the vampire bat. Although it does not feature up-to-date science, having been made seventy years ago, it still remains interesting.
The film benefits from evocative film-making by Jean Painleve. It opens with clips of other films by Painleve showing various bizarre creatures such as the sea-horse. It then goes on to an examination of the vampire bat itself, including a graphic depiction of the bat feeding on a guinea pig. Although the film is not overly gory, it still manages to disturb.
Sensitive viewers should be warned that the portions featuring the guinea pig are rather graphic and it is implied that the bat is allowed to feed until the guinea pig dies. Still, this short is well worth seeking out.
Well Made Short Film
Duvid is an interesting, serio-comic short film dealing with a young Hasidic Jewish man and his attempts to navigate the wider world. The film explores his journey by examining his relationships with two young women-one a rave enthusiast, the other a fellow Hasidic Jew.
Director Chelsea Rebecca gets good performances out of her cast of unknowns. Even though she has barely half an hour to work with, all the major characters are reasonably fleshed out, while the film explores serious issues while remaining humorous.
Probably the best scene is when a character unwittingly ingests LSD and begins to trip. Rebecca ignores the impulse toward wild imagery, conveying the trip through subtle cues of light. All told, she shows every sign of becoming a talented film maker.
Dumb Sleazy Fun
Alien Prey is a sci-fi / sexploitation movie that accomplishes what it sets out to do: offer cheap thrills and quick T&A. It's far from a good movie, but still fun to watch.
The film follows a shape shifting alien that arrives in the English countryside and starts killing people and animals. He moves in with a pair of lesbians, one of whom may be pretty dangerous herself.
This movie exists for two reasons: to show off the body of Glory Annen and offer some cheap gore. It succeeds more in the first department than the second. Although it offers plenty of titillation, the pacing, particularly in the middle, is rather slow. The climax does offer some surprisingly good gore though, and a twist I didn't entirely expect.
One major issue with this film, in retrospect, is its depiction of lesbianism. The more obvious lesbian, Josephine, is portrayed as a mentally ill misandrist, basically a walking negative stereotype of lesbianism. That said, this wasn't unusual for the time, and the film depicts the other lesbian as a sympathetic character.