Zodiac (2007, Directed by David Fincher) English 9

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, June Diane Raphael, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Chloë Sevigny

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(9-Great Film)

Engrossing. Affecting. Superb.

From the late 1960s and on into the ’70s, the notorious serial killer known as the Zodiac terrorized Northern California and taunted the authorities through a series of cryptic letters sent to the local newspapers. David Fincher’s expertly crafted and cast film focuses on a group of men involved in the investigation, alternating between multiple police departments and the San Francisco Chronicle. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Robert Graysmith whose book this film is based on, but this is a true ensemble piece. There are a large number of characters and the focus shifts constantly between them from scene to scene. This approach matched with the perfect casting and absorbing material makes Zodiac fascinating. If I have one quibble, it is Fincher’s insistence on using CGI for background details and shots. At times, it is distractingly artificial.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(554)

Copycat (1995, Directed by Jon Amiel) English 6

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Holly Hunter, Dermot Mulroney, Harry Connick Jr., William McNamara, J.E Freeman, Will Patton

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Effective. Suspenseful. Strong.

After a violent attack by a psychopath, Dr, Helen Hudson (Weaver) is traumatized and rendered agoraphobic, never leaving her state of the art apartment. A year later, a serial killer terrorizing San Francisco makes a point of involving Helen. She notices that the killer is copying a different infamous slaying with each murder, reluctantly teaming up with detectives Monahan (Hunter) and Goetz (Mulroney). The female leads give strong performances and the film’s biggest strength is their fully rounded characters. Apart from that, Copycat is by-the-numbers but well done. It’s an interesting premise that delivers; gripping and suspenseful.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(552)

Sense and Sensibility (1995, Directed by Ang Lee) English 9

Starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Greg Wise, Hugh Grant, Hugh Laurie, Tom Wilkinson, Imogen Stubbs, Imelda Staunton, Gemma Jones

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(9-Great Film)

Warm. Endearing. First-rate.

The death of Henry Dashwood (Wilkinson) and selfishness of his son, John, his heir, leaves his widow and three daughters, prudent Elinor (Thompson), emotional Marianne (Winslet), and the much younger Margaret in dire straits. Fortunately, a cousin, Sir John Middleton takes them in, offering them a cottage, and the two older sisters’ romantic lives play out in that grand Jane Austen style that’s as popular now as it was when the novel was first published over 200 years ago. Emma Thompson wrote this adaptation herself, doing a sterling job all-around. Her Elinor is a worthy and endearing heroine. Winslet’s Marianne is a bit of a brat for much of the film, but the actress fleshes her out so that we recognize it as a symptom of being young and foolish and not an eternal character flaw. Her eventual humbling and subsequent redemption is nearly as satisfying as Elinor’s soulmate finally coming through-at the last minute, of course. Masterfully done by the director, Ang Lee, thought to be an odd choice for the job at the time. Excellent supporting performances. Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs as the meddling, but lovable cousins, Sir John Middleton, and Mrs. Jennings are especially funny.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(548)

If I Were King (1938, Directed by Frank Lloyd) English 8

Starring Ronald Coleman, Basil Rathbone, Frances Dee, Stanley Ridges

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Exciting. Intelligent. Lavish.

Anybody can relate to being dissatisfied with their country’s leadership. How many people believe, or at least boast that they could do better if given the chance? Not surprisingly, this feeling extends long before present-day issues, and, in a forgotten classic, If I Were King, we glimpse 15th century France, alternating at times between the much-maligned King Louis XI (played by Basil Rathbone) and the rebel rousing, street poet Francois Villon (played by Ronald Coleman). Never mind that the French historical figures are portrayed here by British thespians, and many supporting players are played by Americans. As a typical style in Hollywood films, I quickly looked past this oddity and was gripped by this exciting swashbuckler, and moved by the two leads’ excellent performances.  This is an exceptional film.

The King and his people have been pushed to holing up in Paris, besieged by the formidable Burgundians, and reduced to scraps for food. Well, actually it’s the common people who go hungry, while the King and his court eat rations of the finest food. On the streets, Francois Villon spouts poetry to the pretty girls and leads raids on the King’s supply of food, narrowly escaping capture. Meanwhile, in his castle, the King detects a spy in his midst and sets a trap to catch the rat. This leads him to a dingy tavern in disguise where he hears the popular Villon drunkenly bragging of what he would do if he were king while insulting the current leader. Naturally, King Louis makes plans to punish the man later, but fate intercedes. He discovers the identity of the spy in his quarters, and it turns out to be his Grand Constable, the man in charge of his military. When the Grand Constable attacks Villon upon recognizing him as a wanted thief, Villon kills him and unknowingly does the King a favor. In return, King Louis, more out of jest than true gratitude, names Villon as the new Grand Constable for one week, and so, Villon gets the chance to make good on his boasts, not knowing that the King plans on executing him at the end of the week.

Basil Rathbone, aside from his long string of Sherlock Holmes movies, is best remembered for playing suave villains who ultimately lose to the protagonist in a duel (The Mark of Zorro, The Court Jester, Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood).  He was great in those roles. Here, he plays a dramatically different character in the historical personage of Louis XI. He makes the unpopular figure a complex, anti-hero of sorts. He’s intelligent, back-handed, greedy, surprising, but not cruel. Rathbone is almost unrecognizable in the role.

Ronald Coleman, unfortunately not as big of a star today as some of his peers, was a fantastic actor with some truly great films. While If I Were King may not be on the same lofty level as another of his films, Prisoner of Zenda, it represents another example of his greatness. He, too, could be described as an anti-hero. He’s a thief, a womanizer, a common criminal, but given the chance, he proves himself to be a hero, saving his city and its people.

A key aspect of any great adventure film is a compelling romance, and If I Were King provides in this as well. Villon falls for the lady-in-waiting, Katherine (Dee), letting her think he’s a high born noble. She eventually falls for the courageous and compassionate man he is, and not the strutting nobleman he pretends to be, and we leave the film giddy from a film that delivered in rich character, sweeping adventure and intrigue, and literate, well-developed romance.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(547)

Jab Harry Met Sejal (2017, Directed by Imtiaz Ali) Hindi 5

Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Evelyn Sharma, Chandan Roy Sanyal

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(5-Okay Film)

Mediocre. Meandering. Uneven.

A womanizing tour-guide, Harry (Khan) teams up with an assertive bride-to-be, Sejal (Sharma) in order to track down her missing engagement ring. The problem is that she doesn’t remember where she lost it, and she’s traveled through most of Europe. The two fall for one another along the way. A vehicle for Khan and Sharma to reteam after the two wonderful movies Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008) and Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), they maintain their superb chemistry, but it’s not enough to cover for the film’s lack of new ideas and meandering adventure. The supporting cast is also left wanting for memorable players.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(545)

English Babu Desi Mem (1996, Directed by Praveen Nischol) Hindi 4

Starring Shahrukh Khan, Sonali Bendre, Sunny Singh, Rajeshwari Sachdev

(4-Bad Film)

Awry. Over-cooked. Unsatisfying.

A Bollywood  romance with mega-star Khan playing three roles; a father and later, his two dissimilar sons. As a prologue, he plays the father, an Indian man who moves to England with his family. Jumping ahead, the oldest son returns to India, falls in love with a local, and has a son of his own. Sadly, he and his wife die and are unable to care for the boy, who is instead raised by his young Aunt. Jumping ahead again, the second son finds out about his older brother and his nephew. He goes to India in order to bring the boy to his rightful home, only to find the boy is devoted to his Aunt and refuses to leave. Did you get all that? The opportunity for a classic cross-generational, fun, romantic, Bollywood story is all in place for most of the movie, but the second half falls off. It switches tone poorly from an antagonistic romance between Khan and his nephew’s aunt to a violent street tale. I just wanted the romance.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(543)

The Beguiled (2017, Directed by Sofia Coppola) English 6

Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst

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(6-Good Film)

Understated. Finely crafted. Retread.

Remake of a 1971 Don Siegel picture starring Clint Eastwood, Colin Farrell takes over the role of John McBurney, a union soldier lost and wounded in Confederate woods. Eventually, he is found and taken in by Martha Farnsworth’s (Kidman) school for girls, where he quickly tries to gain the upper hand by manipulating and seducing the lonely women. The original dealt with no subtlety whatsoever, and I thought that suited the material. Coppola’s version is beautiful, restrained, and, as a result, dulled. The actors are all fine, the sets and superficial details magnificent, but I preferred the gothic potboiler quality of the original film and Clint Eastwood’s enormous persona in the role of McBurney.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(540)