Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: Rush (2013)

* * *

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl

A reckless, charismatic hot shot versus a less than likeable, but technically proficient perfectionist. Rush is sort of what Top Gun would have been like if Iceman had been given equal narrative importance as Maverick. Based on the true story of the 1976 Formula One season and the rivalry between British driver James Hunt and Austrian driver Niki Lauda, Rush is an often exciting, and surprisingly stylish, film from Ron Howard, though for a film about racing, it's not very well paced. Still, it's a great looking film, even if it isn't one that digs particularly deep.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

21st Century Essentials: I Am Love (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: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Tilda Swinton
Country: Italy

From the outset, as a montage depicts ancient and modern structures existing side by side, I Am Love announces itself as a film about the struggle of the traditional and the new to coexist. The family at the story's center live lives of tradition and ritual, and what ultimately tears them apart is the fact that some want to cling to the old ways, while others are desperate to break out and adopt new ways of living and being. While there may be room enough for architecture of various eras in Milan, mindsets are a different thing, and as those seeking newness push ahead, those anchored to tradition are bound to get left behind. It's that push/pull that drives the characters, giving color and texture to their shifting relationships. That sense of movement is present throughout I Am Love, a film which lives and breathes and, thanks to a lively score by John Adams, sings and dances as well. It is also one of the greatest showcases yet for the many talents of Tilda Swinton.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Prisoners (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal

Prisoners begins with a prayer and, in a sense, ends with one as well. It's that sense of quiet and stillness that bookend the story (revisited, sporadically, throughout the film in a series of beautiful, silent shots) that allows what might otherwise be a conventional thriller to burrow deep and leave a lasting mark. Soaked in atmosphere, this dark and gripping drama is a beautifully rendered piece of work, a triumph of technical craft even if, on a narrative level, it verges on the preposterous. As the best part of the movie watching season gets underway, Prisoners makes for an excellent primer.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Partners in Crime: Bogart & Huston

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations

There are a lot of actor/director teams in the history of cinema whose frequent collaborations have led to a wealth of great movies. Sometimes these pairings bring out the very best in both parties, revitalizing each with a renewed burst of energy and creativity, pushing and challenging each other to new heights (Scorsese/De Niro, Kurosawa/Mifune, Herzog/Kinski immediately spring to mind). Sometimes these pairings start strong, and then succumb to a creative laziness that leaves their projects open to diminishing returns (*cough* Burton/Depp *cough*). One of the more fascinating actor/director team ups is that of Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, who only made four films together but made them all so distinct from each other that you could never argue that they were repeating themselves.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Life, Above All (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: Oliver Schmitz
Starring: Khomotso Manyaka, Harriet Lanabe

It's silence that's the killer. In a region where HIV/AIDS is surrounded by stigma, superstition, and misinformation, treatment for those afflicted with the disease is hard to come by, and even acknowledgement of it can become a source of shame for entire families. Oliver Schmitz' Life, Above All explores this big topic on a small, and very human scale, using it as the backdrop for a coming of age story. Although the film fumbles slightly at the end, swaying just a little too far into the realm of sentimentality, it's nevertheless a strong, and very moving, film.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

* * *

Director: Alex Gibney

Power corrupts, particularly once it becomes the foundation in the creation of a cult of personality. Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks presents the complicated story of WikiLeaks as one of a potentially noble cause undone by the avarice of its mastermind. Although the film does attempt to view the matter in all its complexity, staunch Julian Assange supporters are unlikely to care for the film, which presents him as, alternately, a David out to beat Goliath, a persecuted and hunted scapegoat, and a hypocrite. Although I wouldn't call the film biased (if you separate the cause from the face of the cause, the film is fairly balanced), it's certainly no fan of Assange, who becomes the closest thing the film's story has to a villain. But, then, this isn't exactly a film about heroes, either.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Movie Rivals

#5: Ricky Bobby & Jean Girard, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

In one corner, the boorish, hyper-macho American, in the other an elegant, gay Frenchman. The one thing they have in common is their need to compete and win - and need so great that even after wrecking their cars, they just keep on going.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

21st Century Essentials: There Will Be Blood (2007)

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: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano
Country: USA

He is a man of singular purpose, a man who will settle for nothing less than total domination. Plainview is his name, and it’s the way he sees the world: there is the goal and the path towards it and nothing else. Anything, or anyone, who threatens to get in his way will be steamrolled and crushed into dust, and even those who stand with him will have to be sacrificed in the end, because there is only room enough for him at the top. The character, the performance, and the film itself are titanic achievements, masterworks from an actor and a director who have experienced no shortage of critical acclaim in their careers. There Will Be Blood isn’t just one of the best films of the 21st century, it’s one of the best films ever made.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Oscar Cursed: Renee Zellweger Edition

There's an Oscar myth that's been floating around for a while called "the Best Supporting Actress" curse. According to the legend, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar is the death knell for an actress' career and sometimes her love life as well. It's a bit silly, of course, because while there are a number of women who have won Best Supporting Actress and then dropped off the mainstream radar, it's also true of winners in virtually all of the major categories. Sometimes winning an Oscar is just the beginning (remember, Meryl Streep won Best Supporting Actress for one of her earliest film roles and she's not doing too bad), but sometimes it's the peak, after which there is a sharp decline. In the late 90s/early 00s, Renee Zellweger was seemingly everywhere, but especially at the Oscars, earning nominations in 2001, 2002 and 2003, when she won for her supporting turn in Cold Mountain. Since then...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Review: The Iceman (2013)

* 1/2

Director: Ariel Vroman
Starring: Michael Shannon

It's hard to believe that a film about a man who killed more than 100 people could be so dull, but here's The Iceman to prove it possible. Based on the true story of Richard Kuklinski (played here by Michael Shannon, and marvelously despite the film's shortcomings), a sociopath who eventually became a mob hitman and managed to keep his murderous double life a secret from his wife and children for twenty years, the film is a long shuffle through dates and events, never gaining anything resembling momentum and too scattered to even develop as a theme its ostensible purpose of showing that even monsters are people.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: Attack the Block (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost

Attack the Block is a monster movie, but it's more than that. It's charmingly low budget (compared to Hollywood, CGI filled monster movies), and possessed of a sharp social consciousness that folds easily into its story. It's also delightful and entertaining, a small scale action movie that manages to be the equal of its bigger budgeted genre brethren. Mostly, though, it's a fine introduction to John Boyega, a charismatic young actor who will hopefully feature in more films in the future.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Review: In a World... (2013)

* * *

Director: Lake Bell
Starring: Lake Bell, Fred Melamed, Demetri Martin, Michaela Watkins, Rob Corddry

In a world where women are voiceless, one woman will make hers heard. Or something to that effect. The point is, in an industry where decent roles for women are few and far between, Lake Bell wrote and directed one for herself. Granted, it sucks that an actress would have to go to such great lengths just for a chance to play something other than the love interest or the best friend in a film, but you can't really argue with the results here. In a World... isn't a perfect film, but it's a strong debut and coming out during a season when most films have the depth of a puddle, it's nice to see a movie that actually wants to mean something.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: Morvern Callar (2002)

* * * *

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Samantha Morton

Unopened presents under the tree, an unpublished manuscript on the computer, and a dead body on the floor. It must be Christmas. A study in existential nihilism, or perhaps just extreme detachment, Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Morvern Callar remains a stunning film, both for its brief bursts of exuberance and for its long stretches of silence. Rarely has a film so brilliantly conveyed the inner life of its protagonist, a woman whose flat affect and, shall we say, unusual coping methods, masks deep pain and an even deeper feeling of restlessness. Morvern Callar is a cold but fascinating movie, built around a pitch perfect performance.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Rebels on the Backlot

Six directors, by any measure amongst the most important of the last twenty years: Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, and Spike Jonze. Sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, but all, apparently, with mother issues. Sharon Waxman's Rebels on the Backlot sometimes strains to create a true sense of community and connection between them (and other directors who are only mentioned briefly, included as part of what Waxman believes to be the "rebel" directors of the 1990s, but who presumably wouldn't grant her as much interview time as the six who make up the bulk of the book), but the behind the scenes looks she provides at the directors' works throughout the 1990s are invaluable. It sometimes drifts a little further into gossip than it absolutely needs to, but Rebels on the Backlot is nevertheless a largely entertaining and informative work.