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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: Save the Date (2012)

* *

Director: Michael Mohan
Starring: Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Mark Webber, Geoffrey Arend

Save the Date has a great cast and a strong premise. Its characters, though somewhat self-obsessed, are at least believably so, and there's a ring of truth to a lot of the character moments in the film. The flaw is in the execution, in a narrative overstuffed with contrivance, and which strains to force its characters into situations of increasing distress, as if hopping from crisis to crisis is more interesting than watching them deal with just one. Still, it has its moments, even if they are a little few and far between.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: Admission (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Paul Weitz
Starring: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd

Admission is the kind of movie you should dislike on principle. It's a paint by numbers romantic comedy that takes no chances and, really, it's the kind of movie Hollywood needs to make less of, not more of. Yet, it is blessed by the strength of its two leads, who exude enough charm and talent that they make it seem more compelling than it has any business being. It's not enough to make it "good," exactly, but it is enough to make you like it despite its flaws. I realize that it probably sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but I actually did like Admission a fair bit. It's not the best thing anyone involved has ever appeared in, but it plays well on a lazy summer evening.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

* * * *

Director: Andrew Jarecki

As usual, the truth lies somewhere between one story and another. Andrew Jarecki's riveting documentary Capturing the Friedmans is ostensibly about the criminal case which resulted in the imprisonment of a father and son, but really it's about how a family which was never too strong to begin with completely fell apart under the intense pressure and scrutiny of a trial and a media frenzy. Making use of a wealth of footage captured by David Friedman, the family's eldest son, Jarecki creates a fascinating portrait of family dysfunction couched in a "did they or didn't they" legal narrative.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Cate Blanchett Performances

#5: Hanna

Granted, the accent can be a bit iffy, but Blanchett's performance as the relentless government operative/wicked stepmother figure is brilliant nevertheless.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Smashed (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul

What seems like fun - or, at the very least, like a good story - at one point in your life can take on darker tinges later on, particularly when that "fun thing" becomes an every day occurrence that threatens your livelihood and your life itself. James Ponsoldt's Smashed is an addiction drama wonderfully free of pathos, one which defines addiction according to its characters, rather than defining its characters according to their addiction, and recognizes that rock bottom is the beginning, not the end. Anchored by a brilliant performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed is a small but very affecting drama.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review: Only God Forgives (2013)

* *

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas

The beautiful room is empty. In a Bangkok soaked with red even when it isn’t dripping with blood, writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn sets a tale of revenge and reprisal in desperate need of a pulse. Even in scenes of its most brutal violence, Only God Forgives sits lifelessly on the screen, gorgeously, artistically mounted, but absolutely empty and devoid of purpose. Although I admire Refn’s boldness and willingness to take risks, this movie is an exercise in form without the developed narrative framework to hang it on and flesh it out.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Animal Kingdom (2010)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Ben Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn
Country: Australia

Crime movies are a dime a dozen. Great crime movies (like great movies of any genre) are rare and special. Ben Michôd’s debut film Animal Kingdom is a great crime movie. It’s great because of the way it elevates the tropes of the genre, and it’s great because it is also a character study and a family drama woven into a crime narrative. Loosely based on the story of a real Australian crime family, the film is a carefully etched portrait of dysfunction and brutality that practically demands multiple viewings because it’s so brilliantly put together.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Non-Superhero Comic Book Adaptations

#5: 300

This. Is. Spaaaartaaaaaaaa! Zack Snyder's shot-for-shot adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel may be thematically problematic, but it's also highly entertaining (even if the fast motion/slow motion thing has since become totally played out).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Inland Empire (2006)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Lynch
Starring: Laura Dern

There will come a time when everyone who watches a lot of movies will find themselves at the strange intersection where "quality" crosses with "dislike." I didn't like Inland Empire, David Lynch's spiritual successor to Mulholand Drive, but I know that it's good, perhaps even approaching genius. Although I find the aesthetic of the film off-putting (which is perhaps shallow, but film is about style and substance, look and feel), I recognize the complexity and delicate density of the narrative; and although I couldn't connect to the film as a whole on an emotional level, I found Laura Dern's performance alternately moving and mesmerizing - it is surely one of the best performances of the last ten years.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: Frances Ha (2013)

* * * *

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig

I don't know yet if Frances Ha is the best movie of the year, but I know that no other movie released so far this year has made me smile more. Less acidic than director Noah Baumbach's other recent works, but containing his typically fine attention to character detail, the film is light without being flimsy, picaresque without being scattered, and reminiscent of Woody Allen at his peak. Frances Ha is an utterly delightful movie from beginning to end, one which I can't wait to go back and watch again.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Giant Movie Monsters

#5: Graboids, Tremors

Tremors may be a silly B-movie, but it's the kind of silly B-movie that is compulsively watchable. Seriously, if you stumble across this on TV on a rainy afternoon, you will watch it - you just won't be able to help yourself. As monster antagonists go, the subterranean worm creatures of this series are pretty boss.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: How to Survive a Plague (2012)

* * * *

Director: David France

Although David France's documentary How to Survive a Plague would be an interesting watch at any time, it's particularly interesting in the wake of the US Supreme Court's DOMA ruling. While liberal minded people greeted the news with a mixture of relieved sigh and exasperated, "It's about time" (because, really, it's beyond time), it's important to remember that as slow as progress seems right now, as it's happening, in the grand scheme of things society has made incredible strides in a short period of time. Right now same-sex marriage is gaining a foothold in US law and a record number of US citizens support making it legal. Just a couple of decades ago hospitals were allowed to turn people dying of AIDS away and refuse them treatment, while those in power were allowed to ignore a health crisis that decimated a community because that community was considered morally and politically undesirable. There's still a long way to go towards equality, but to go from "let them die" to "let them marry" within the span of about 30 years is still a pretty amazing leap.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: Holy Motors (2012)

* * * 1/2

Director: Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant

Holy Motors is nothing and it is everything. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, never boring, it's a film free of the strictures of narrative, and fully about the construction of characters. It's the very definition of a cinematic acquired taste, a deranged whirlwind of a film that hits the reset in every scene, spinning wildly between genres and tones, and throwing out surprises at every corner. It's an oddity, but it's the kind that sticks with you and, in fact, refuses to get out of your head once it's in there.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Guillermo Del Torro
Starring: Ivanna Baqueror
Country: Mexico

Fairytales may be geared towards children, but they are built on darkness, on terrifying creatures and characters dying awful deaths; they present the horrors of reality in stark, simple terms that children can understand, creating a black and white world where the division between good and evil is always clear. Guillermo Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is told in such terms, while also finding a way to dig deeper, locking reality and fantasy together in an unflinching, yet beautiful, tale of brutality and war as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing is the kind of film a director makes once they've attained a level of success which affords them the creative blank cheque to make a little curio. Once you've made a film as successful as The Avengers (and agreed to helm its follow-up), you'll be forgiven for making something as uncommercial as a black and white film with dialogue in iambic pentameter and a plot which hinges on wit rather than explosions. That this film should be uncommercial is a shame, since it's such a delightful piece of work, even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of Kenneth Brangh's 1993 adaptation.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: The Heat (2013)

* * *

Director: Paul Feig
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy

If there was any lingering doubt, that can now be laid to rest: Melissa McCarthy is a star. How long she can sustain that status remains to be seen, given that even this film, which relies so heavily on her for its success, used its promotional materials to try to disassociate from the very unconventionality that helps set her apart by airbrushing her into someone else entirely. Nevertheless, for right now, McCarthy can do no wrong. That's not to say that The Heat is a great film - beyond making its two leads women, it's not very imaginative in terms of its genre - but it's an engaging and enjoyable one.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Swanson on Swanson

The great thing about an iconic performance is that it will live forever, becoming a part of pop culture that will not be forgotten. The bad thing about an iconic performance is that the character can become so melded with the image of the actor, that the two become inseparable in the eyes of the public. Because she had some surface similarities to Norma Desmond, some considered (and still do consider) Sunset Blvd. in the light of autobiography, to the point where Gloria Swanson felt it necessary to point out, “I’ve got nobody floating in my swimming pool.” Gloria Swanson was Norma Desmond, but Norma Desmond was not Gloria Swanson. Which isn’t to say that Gloria Swanson wasn’t just a little bit crazy, but that she was crazy in more ordinary, typical ways than was Norma Desmond.