L.A. Confidential

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential: Curtis Hanson weaves a great tale; the writing here is superb, telling a plot that is far from straightforward, thematically rich and full to the brim with complex, interesting characters. The cast clearly appreciates and responds with uniformly great, layered performances; the stand-outs are Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce and James Cromwell, but every other name could be here and it would be equally fair. Very carefully done, displaying great art direction and costume design; Dante Spinotti’s camerawork is classic, clean, beautiful.

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The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)The Maltese Falcon: John Huston tells this convoluted, fun story with great confidence and clarity; it all starts with the screenplay, that presents snappy dialogue galore, which makes every scene a joy to watch. That would all be for naught if the cast was not able to read it properly, but the cast here is in great shape. At the center of it all is Humphrey Bogart, playing a role that nobody ever played as well as he did here and in other films; he is, however, surrounded by a great group, and they are all (Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook Jr.) wonderful. Expressively and elegantly shot by Arthur Edeson.

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Rio, I Love You

Rio, I Love YouRio, I Love You: short films are a tricky format, well-deserving of a variation of the old saying “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”; generally, the limited time makes it hard to construct a story and characters properly. In addition to that, the many episodes are very uneven in tone and quality; most of them are dull. Two of the ten stand out: the touching story told by Guillermo Arriaga, and the stylish episode told by Fernando Meirelles. There are many interesting presences in the large cast, but most of them are given, at most, just one note to play. The structure doesn’t help, with interludes between the episodes that don’t add to the proceedings. The shorts are generally well-done, with many shots of Rio de Janeiro’s dramatic vistas.

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Chinatown (1974)

ChinatownChinatown: Roman Polanski’s masterpiece (a word not used lightly) starts with the writing. Robert Towne’s screenplay echoes from the work of Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald (mostly from the last of this great triad), presenting complex characters and a serpentine but irresistible plot. Jack Nicholson plays with great charm his rascal (making an unpleasant character one interesting to watch); Faye Dunaway and John Huston are also tone-perfect in their own presences. Production and costume design are top-notch, and Jerry Goldsmith’s moody score fits the bill perfectly. John A. Alonzo shoots the scenes very elegantly; there is a spare use of cuts, but the long takes don’t call attention to themselves, but to the acting.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey

The Hundred-Foot JourneyThe Hundred-Foot Journey: the mix of diverse, but equally interesting, cultures, the lovely setting and the well-done combination of genres in Lasse Hallström’s film makes for an engaging and entertaining, if somewhat fluffy, experience. While the plot is somewhat busy, there is an underlying thematic consistency that is commendable. The older pair, Helen Mirren and Om Puri, is nearly magnificent; the younger counterpart, Charlotte Le Bon and Manish Dayal, is given less to do, but are nevertheless solid. Beautifully shot by Linus Sandgren, both the far-away vistas and extreme close-ups of food.

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Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the MoonlightMagic in the Moonlight: Woody Allen’s film is a pleasurable if breezy experience, harmless fun in the best way; the story, little more than an excuse to display immaculate, rich art and costume design, beautiful cinematography (by the great Darius Khondji) and justifiably use a jazzy score. This being an Allen’s film, there is the usual assortment of amusing one-liners. The cast is very attractive, and perfectly capable to reading the smart dialogue; Colin Firth makes a perfect curmudgeon, and Emma Stone is equally fine as the ingénue.

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Lucy (2014)

LucyLucy: in equal measures vapid, pretentious and needlessly violent, Luc Besson’s film is an unpleasant spectacle. The high-concept plot feels almost an afterthought, simply being the vessel for a lot of philosophic mumbo-jumbo. Scarlett Johanson plays not so much a character, but an all-powerful cypher; not much is known about her, making it hard to care, relate or worry about her fate. Morgan Freeman is not given much to do. Visually, the film is slick; the early interludes end up being distracting rather than elucidating.

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The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent SevenThe Magnificent Seven: John Sturges worked out of a fantastic blueprint for this western (not that it’s a guarantee of anything, of course), and the results show. The action is fast, furious and exciting (both well shot and edited); that leaves plenty of time for the story to unfold, and for the group of characters to display what they are made of. The large cast respond in kind and is generally strong; Eli Wallach creates a great villain and is the stand-out. Elmer Bernstein created a great action score, probably one of the most recognizable of all time.

Read also: Seven Samurai

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The Great Escape

The Great EscapeThe Great Escape: John Sturges makes one incredibly entertaining film, all the more impressive since the story (against all appearances) is based on historical fact. One of the factors that make this such a spectacle is the great, instantly recognizable, score by Elmer Bernstein; in particular the main theme, but all of it resonates (even if he borrows from another collaboration with Sturges, another great action score). However, it’s undeniable the film would not connect so well if not for the great cast; there are a great group of recognizable faces and they are all in top shape; Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence may be the ones that rise further, but there’s not a wrong note. The writing is careful enough to give most of the characters a moment of growth, even if the plot is what matters most. Beautifully done, well shot and edited; the production design of the main setting very carefully realized.

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Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo JimaLetters from Iwo Jima: Clint Eastwood sets the mood beautifully in this war film, with (his own) simple, delicate score and great all-around acting from the cast, in particular from the two central actors, Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya. The classic, linear structure and the respectful, balanced tone were good choices to tell the story, furthering the themes. Tom Stern, once more, shoots this film beautifully, but the color palette (excessively cold and desaturated, for the most part) is distracting.

Read also: Flags of Our Fathers

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