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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Jack Reacher (2012)

* * *

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike

I have a volatile relationship with Netflix's recommendations. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Netflix seems to have no idea what the word "recommends" means, given that it sometimes recommends films to me that have no connection to anything that I've already watched and indicated liking, and/or films that it believes I would give a rating of 1 or 2 stars if I did watch it. For whatever reason, when it does this I usually can't resist watching whatever it comes up with; it's like a challenge that I can't bring myself to walk away from. So, when Netflix recommended Jack Reacher, a film which I recall reading scathing things about when it came out in theaters, I figured that it was, once again, screwing with me, though it did claim that the recommendation was based on my having liked Drive and Hanna. Those two films are vastly superior to this one in myriad ways, but I actually did not hate Jack Reacher. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it (though I am told that this is only possible because I never read the book). So congratulations Netflix, you've won this round in the game we're playing with rules I'll probably never quite understand.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Life Itself (2014)

* * * *

Director: Steve James

More often than not, critics are characterized as being the bane of a filmmaker's existence, the potential obstacle between a film and its audience. For that reason alone, Life Itself is a somewhat extraordinary film, celebrating as it does the life of film critic Roger Ebert. But Ebert wasn't just any film critic, nor was he really "just" a film critic. He was a wonderful writer and a champion of movies he felt deserved a bigger audience but were perhaps too small and/or obscure to find it on their own (one of the more famous examples is his embrace of Steve James' documentary Hoop Dreams), and he was knowledgeable with respect to film history and insightful when it came to breaking a film down. All of this is even more impressive when you consider that he wasn't even someone who grew up dreaming of becoming a film critic, but rather came into the occupation somewhat by chance as a result of joining the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times just as their regular film critic was leaving. That he would build his career up from those circumstances to become, arguably, the most famous film critic in North America and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot is only a small measure of his extraordinary talent, and but a small reason why he's deserving of such an affectionate and compelling tribute.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: The A-Team (2010)

Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel
Domestic Gross: $77,222,099

With the exception of Cowboys and Aliens, this week's "not-buster" earned significantly more than all the previous entries (more, even, than a few of the entries put together) in this series. $77 million is no small amount of money when considered on its own, but when considered in the context of a film with a reported $110 million budget, it starts to look woefully inadequate. But even if "profit" wasn't an issue, The A-Team would still qualify as a failure for its lack of cultural impact. The A-Team was very clearly designed to be the opening salvo in a franchise, yet plans for a sequel were scrapped sometime in 2011. Do you know how unsuccessful a film like this has to be to not get a sequel? Hollywood loves sequels so much that it sometimes seems to forget that there's any other kind of movie. But there will be no The A-Team 2 and, to be perfectly honest, I'd actually forgotten that The A-Team movie was even a thing until I went looking for summer box office bombs and was reminded that this was something that happened. Now that I've seen it, I believe I shall promptly forget.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Movies Based in Greek Mythology

#5: Electra (1962)

The first installment of Michael Cacoyannis' "Greek tragedy" trilogy (the other two parts, 1971's Trojan Women and 1977's Iphigenia, are also well worth seeing) is a spare, striking, and powerful film and stars the great Irene Papas in the title role.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Wadjda (2013)

* * * *

Director: Haifaa al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed

What the title character of Wadjda wants seems very simple. She wants a bicycle so that she and her friend can race. But as a girl in Saudi Arabia, reminded constantly that she should cover her face or go indoors so that she's not seen and that she should keep her voice down so that she's not heard, she might as well wish for a pet unicorn. Then again, there's a first time for everything - just ask director Haiffa al-Mansour who, in bringing Wadjda to the screen, became the first Saudi woman to direct a feature length film, the first person to shoot an entire feature in Saudi Arabia, and the maker of the first film ever submitted by Saudi Arabia for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. But even if Wadjda didn't have the distinction of being part of so many firsts, it would still be a film notable for the strength of its storytelling and the craft of its execution.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: Obvious Child (2014)

* * *

Director: Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate

If nothing else, Obvious Child is probably the most subversive romantic comedy of the year, a film which takes one of the least respected and most formulaic of cinematic genres and uses it as a Trojan Horse for a frank discussion about abortion and its surrounding issues. During a summer when discussion of women's issues seem particularly heated thanks, in part, to the US Supreme Court's decision that a corporate entity's "feelings" matter more than a woman's health, the honest and straight forward way that Obvious Child approaches and explores its subject feels particularly vital. This isn't to say that the film is perfect - for a comedy with a protagonist who is literally a comedian, the film isn't nearly as funny as you might expect - but when it hits, it hits, and it contains an exchange which I think perfectly sums up the problem with respect to public discourse of women's issues when one of the female characters angrily laments the fact that panels of old men are legislating women's bodies and her male friend responds, "Everything you're saying is valid, but you are scaring my dick off."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Snowpiercer (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, John Hurt

Having now seen it, I can't really imagine how Harvey Weinstein could think that there's 20 minutes to cut from Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer. It runs at a robust 126 minutes but this is a taunt, white-knuckle science fiction thriller from beginning to end. Though it came at the price of sacrificing a large-scale theatrical release for an extremely limited theatrical run with simultaneous VOD release (which in hindsight I think will start to look like The Weinstein Company cutting off its nose to spite its face, as in what seems like an unusually quiet summer movie season this could have been at least a modest hit), Boon was able to successfully fight to keep his film intact - and thank God for that. This is a terrific film of incredible ambition and skilled execution. If you're lucky enough to have an opportunity to see it in a theater, seize the chance, but seek it out wherever you can find it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Original Sin (2001)

Director: Michael Cristofer
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Antonio Banderas
Domestic Gross: $16,534,221

If Original Sin had come out a decade earlier, early enough to have ridden the wave of "erotic" thrillers that found an audience in the late 80s/early 90s, it might have been a decent sized hit (of course, if it had come out during that era, it probably also would have had to be rewritten so that it could star Michael Douglas). It has the elements that could have made it a hit during that era: hot actor, hot actress, a sultry, exotic location, a sexual charge combined with sexual danger snaking its way through the story. It even classes things up a bit by making it a period piece. By 2001, however, the genre had been out of favor for years, though I can see why MGM thought this could be the film to revive it: it had Angelina Jolie, fresh off her Oscar win and a hit in Tomb Raider, and Antonio Banderas, doing his Latin lover thing, fresh off a hit of his own in the form of Spy Kids, and it got a decent amount of press with regards to the sex scenes, with some footage having to be cut in order to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating. Yet, when the film came out in the summer of 2001, audiences reacted with complete indifference and the film sunk like a stone at the box office. Perhaps there's simply no amount of Angelina Jolie nudity (and there is a ton in this movie) that doesn't get canceled out when the story is all about the emasculation of the male protagonist.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

* * * *

Director: Norman Jewison
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger

Until recently, In the Heat of the Night was one of the few Best Picture winners that I hadn't seen. There's no reason in particular for this oversight; I always figured I'd watch it eventually, I just didn't feel any real urgency to get to it. Part of the reason was that I had the idea that the film was unlikely to have aged well, that like many Hollywood "issue" movies, the sharpness of its progressive bent would have dulled over time to the point where it either seemed "quaint" and old fashioned or possessed of the sort of well-meaning patronizing and reliance on stereotype that would now make it seem offensive. I assumed that in a year which saw a couple of historic films nominated for Best Picture, In the Heat of the Night was the happy medium between a pair of revolutionary movies (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate) and a pair of "safe" movies (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle). I was wrong on both counts. In the Heat of the Night is an excellent film that approaches its volatile material with such directness that it maintains its sting and continues to feel relevant even in light of the changes that society has undergone in the years since (though how much society has changed is up for debate).

Saturday, July 19, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Once (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: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Country: Ireland

Guy meets Girl. Girl asks Guy to fix her vacuum cleaner. Guy and Girl play a song together. Love ensues. John Carney’s Once is a love story stripped down to its bare essentials, a naturalistic drama that plays out over a spare 86 minutes but resonates deeply. Headlined by musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, this musical about seizing the day and taking a chance remains as effortlessly charming and delightful as it was when it first burst into theaters and started capturing hearts left, right, and center to become one of the most acclaimed films of 2007. Once is a wonderful and very special film, the kind that can be imitated but can’t be duplicated because it’s the result that rare instance in which every element of a film has come together in perfect harmony.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)

* * * *

Director: Cristi Puiu
Starring: Ioan Fiscuteanu, Luminita Gheorghiu

Death is not a dignified process, but it is particularly merciless in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the Romanian New Wave film about one man's long, final night. A keenly observed character drama from one of the richest film movements of recent memory (other RNW films include 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, Child's Pose, Beyond the Hills and Police, Adjective), a simple description of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu may make it sound insufferably art housey: a 153 minute film during which a man is taken to, and turned away from, multiple hospitals as he slowly dies. This is an accurate description, but doesn't quite capture how compelling the film really is. It's long, yes, but not slow; it's depressing, but it's fascinating as well. It's also one of the most acclaimed films of that last decade.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston

It seems only natural that it would take a Jim Jarmusch to make vampires seem even remotely cool again. Almost a decade after the Twilight series made vampires the go-to means of channeling the danger of teenage sexuality into a safer, schmoopier form of romanticism, and helped make vampires so ubiquitous in pop culture that any allure was slowly leached out of them, Only Lovers Left Alive comes along to show that it's possible to return the luster to our favorite breed of brooding fiends. Starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a pair of vampires who have lived for centuries as observers and spent that time collecting knowledge and art while lamenting the ways that human beings don't quite appreciate what they have, Only Lovers has more in common with Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire than with most other vampire movies, and exists on atmosphere more than on plot (though a plot finds it eventually). But what a beautiful, dreamy, hypnotic atmosphere it is.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: The Change-Up (2011)

Director: David Dobkin
Starring: Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds
Domestic Gross: $37,081,475

Call it a case of counting your chickens before they're hatched. A week before the release of The Change-Up, the film was plugged in a Hollywood Reporter article about the rise and dominance of R-rated comedies, mentioned in the same breath as Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses and Bridesmaids, all hits in the summer of 2011. Noting the recent trend of films with "off-color language and raunchy sensibilities," the writer goes on to call R-rated comedies "Hollywood's darling" and ends with the assertion: "The best part for Hollywood is that the barrage isn't over: Another R-rated comedy, the Jason-Bateman-Ryan Reynolds starrer The Change Up, is coming from Universal on Aug. 5." Hindsight is, of course, 20/20 but it's difficult to understand how a film as charmless and lacking in virtue as The Change-Up could ever be considered alongside those other films (and I say that as someone who didn't even like Horrible Bosses), and easy to understand how it became an abject failure both in terms of box office and critical reception. This is, after all, a film that begins with an infant projectile defecating into Bateman's open mouth and then somehow finds a way to keep lowering the bar from there.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: The Wes Anderson Collection

Since making his debut with 1996's Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson has emerged as one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation. He's one of those filmmakers whose signature can be identified from nothing more than a still from one of his films because the look and feel of his work is so uniquely his. Examining Anderson's films from Bottle Rocket to Moonrise Kingdom (but, sadly, not including this year's The Grand Budapest Hotel), critic Matt Zoller Seitz's "The Wes Anderson Collection" is a combination of essays about each of the films and an interview with Anderson in which each film is visited and discussed at some length. As a casual read, "The Wes Anderson Collection" is great, as it is full of little odds and ends such as behind the scenes pictures, art work, storyboards, and shot to shot comparisons of scenes from Anderson's work with the work that inspired it. But those looking for insights from Anderson into his work may well end up a bit disappointed, as the collection is really far less revealing about Anderson's thoughts on his own work than it is about Zoller Seitz's experience of the films as a fan, critic, and friend.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Ida (2014)

* * * *

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza

All of her life she's known herself as Anna, a WWII orphan with no family save for the nuns who raised her in the convent since infancy. Now, on the verge of becoming a nun herself, she learns that she does have one surviving family member after all, an aunt, and that before being allowed to take her vows she must meet with her. When she does, she learns that her name is actually Ida and that she's Jewish. If she is shocked by these revelations, she does not show it; she accepts them with the same placidity with which she greets everything. All she says is that she'd like to visit their graves. A tricky request, as the aunt points out, given that they were Jewish and killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland. This is the starting point for Pawel Pawlikowski's remarkable Ida, a wonderful, moving, and sometimes surprisingly funny film.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: Tammy (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon

I like the idea of Tammy more than I liked its execution. This is a film, after all, where the majority of the speaking parts belong to women (that, in and of itself, feels almost revolutionary), which passes the Bechdel test so easily that it makes you give the side-eye to those films that fail it, and which gives voice to various kinds of women normally ignored by pop culture. On top of that, it's a funny movie, albeit not as frequently laugh out loud funny as last summer's McCarthy-starring The Heat. So what's the problem, then? It's in the construction, mainly. Written by McCarthy and director Ben Falcone, Tammy is a bit too loosey goosey for its own good, lacking in the kind of structure that might have given it some narrative momentum, and burdened with a few well-worn tropes and cues which it would have been better off without. It's not a bad film - sometimes it's quite good - it just doesn't always rise to the occasion.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Pariah (2011)

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: Dee Rees
Starring: Adepero Oduye, Kim Wayans, Pernell Walker, Aasha Davis
Country: USA

Dee Rees’ Pariah is a film which could easily be pigeonholed, reduced to its most basic components by those who would prefer to make immediate, superficial judgments about a film’s accessibility sight unseen, dismissing it as a “black movie” or a “gay movie,” niche within niche, that has nothing to say to them. This is unfortunate because Pariah is not just one of the best films of the last couple of years, but one which contains the kind of thematic universality that is rare and precious. Though the film is set in a specific milieu and turns on a specific set of conflicts, it is so powerful and contains such deep emotional truth that it easily transcends any attempts to limit it as a special interest film.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Roger Ebert's Reviews of Bad Movies

In honor of the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, which opens in limited release today.

#5: Breaking the Rules (1992)

"A movie about a guy who finds out he has a month to live, and decides to spend it in the worst buddy movie ever made... It is a long, painful lapse of taste, tone, and ordinary human feeling. Perhaps it was made by beings from another planet, who were able to watch our television in order to absorb key concepts such as cars, sex, leukemia and casinos, but formed an imperfect view of how to fit them together."Full Review

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Runner Runner (2013)

* 1/2

Director: Brad Furman
Starring: Justin Timberlake, Ben Affleck, Gemma Arterton

I've mentioned before that whatever algorithm Netflix uses to create its recommendations is basically incomprehensible. A while ago Netflix "recommended" The Canyons for me, even though its best guess for how I would rate it was 1.5 stars. This time Netflix recommended Runner Runner despite assuming that I would rate it 1.5 stars (good guess!). Now, I learned a lesson with The Canyons, but I was intrigued by the fact that Netflix was recommending Runner Runner to me based on my having watched Orange is the New Black. What on earth, I wondered, could a gambling thriller headlined by Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck have in common with a comedy/drama series set in a women's prison? I won't leave you in suspense: nothing. There is absolutely nothing that Runner Runner and Orange is the New Black have in common, unless you count the fact that every once in a while characters in each speak a little bit of Spanish.