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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)

* * * *

Director: Kim Ki-duk
Starring: Oh Yeong-su, Seo Jae-kyeong, Kim Young-min, Kim Jong-ho, Kim Ki-duk

Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring is a film that grabs you immediately with the exquisite beauty of an image and then doesn't let you go. It is a wholly engrossing film which, despite its gentle and contemplative approach to its story, unfolds so quickly that you feel sad that it's ending so soon. Exploring the life of a Buddist monk by dropping in on him at key moments in each phase of his life (the seasons in the title refer to his childhood, late adolescence, adulthood, and maturity), the film is quiet and unassuming but deeply moving and evocative. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring has been on my list of movies to watch for quite some time and I wish I'd gotten to it sooner as it is such a unique and wonderful piece of work.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: Julia (1977)

* *

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robbards

I'm not sure what people saw in Julia in 1977. Enough, apparently, to give it 3 Oscars and 8 more nominations and the distinction of tying The Turning Point for the most nominated film of its year. I confess that I don't get it. Perhaps, when a film features so many names from Oscar glories past (director Fred Zinnemann already had 4 Oscars, while Jane Fonda, Jason Robbards, and Maximilian Schell each had 1, and Vanessa Redgrave had already been nominated 3 times), it just seems like it must be good. I don't know, but I know that Julia is not a particularly good movie. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it a "bad" movie, but it's definitely a muddle in which the good elements are lost in a story which doesn't seem to know its own purpose.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Features That Started as Short Films

#5: Boogie Nights

10 years before Paul Thomas Anderson broke through with Boogie Nights he made a short film called The Dirk Diggler Story, a mockumentary inspired by This Is Spinal Tap. What's most impressive is that Anderson made the short when he was 17 and put it together and VCR to VCR editing system.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Series Review: Terminator

Directors: James Cameron, Jonathan Mostow, McG
Starring: Arnold Schwartzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Christian Bale, Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, Sam Worthington

At the moment, the Terminator series is one that is evenly divided. Two of the films are really good, and two of them are really... not good. In July 2015 a fifth film will join the series and, at the risk of pre-judging a movie by its title, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Terminator: Genisys will tip the series into being predominantly made up of films that are terrible. I get why the studio wants to keep returning to this particular well. It's a premise and a mythology that should work across multiple films, but having recently marathoned all four movies, I've come to the following conclusions: Terminator doesn't work like it should without James Cameron, without Linda Hamilton, without younger Arnold Schwartzeneger, and the more it focuses on John Connor. John Connor is an effective mythology figure, but as a character he suuuuuuucks. In every incarnation. Good luck, Jason Clarke.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

* * *

Director: James Marsh
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

Looks can be deceiving. Going by advertising, James Marsh's The Theory of Everything would appear to be a film about Stephen Hawking's groundbreaking work as a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, accomplished even as a motor neuron disease began to ravage his body; a story, in other words, of a "great man" overcoming adversity. In actuality, Hawking's work is there to provide some context and color, but it's not really the story. This isn't a film about the science, or really the scientist. It's a film about a marriage, told with no small degree of conventionality, but also told with sensitivity and grace. While most films about important men in history relegate their female leads to the thankless position of "woman behind the man," Theory is as much (if not actually more) about Jane Wilde Hawking as it is about Stephen Hawking, and does more than just give glancing attention to the struggles, sacrifices, and private agonies of being the supportive spouse. It's sad that in 2014 that should seem so refreshing, but that should take nothing away from the film which, while flawed, is nevertheless a moving portrait of a man, a woman, and their union.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Netflix Recommends... Thanks for Sharing (2013)

* * *

Director: Stuart Blumberg
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad, Gwyneth Paltrow

This Netflix recommendation came as a bit of a surprise to me. For one thing, I'd never heard of Thanks for Sharing previously (it premiered at TIFF in 2012 and then had a super limited release last fall), for another the recommendation is apparently entirely random on Netflix's part, and then finally, on reading a description of the plot (which is about sex addicts), I couldn't help but be reminded of Steve McQueen's Shame, which was a fine film but unrelentingly depressing, clinical, and joyless. Thanks for Sharing is sort of the opposite of that film, free of the burden of being a serious art film, yet capable of telling a serious, character-based story, and centering on the ongoing struggle of addiction and recovery, but always aware that there is happiness to be found in life. Thanks for Sharing isn't a "great" film by any stretch, but it's a good one and features really good turns by Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ten Years Later... Alexander (2004)

On this day in 2004

Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson

Oliver Stone's Alexander may very well still be a work in progress. Earlier this year Stone released the 206 minute "Ultimate Cut" of the film, which makes for the fourth cut after the 175 minute theatrical version in 2004, the 167 minute "Director's Cut" in 2005, and the 214 minute "The Final: Unrated Cut" in 2007. How all versions stack up against each other is a question I cannot answer, but I can say this: the Director's Cut is a hulking behemoth of a film begging for a solid sense of purpose and repeatedly falling victim to the most typical problems with biopics, namely, telling the audience that a legendary figure is great instead of showing what made him so, and using its time to tick off historical events and names instead of forming a cogent narrative. Alexander is an ambitious film without question but, then again, most cinematic boondoggles are.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: Whiplash (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons

When do the ends stop justifying the means? If you shape a young talent into a star, but crush his spirit in the process, is his ascension to that next plateau still a win? Damien Chezelle's Whiplash is the story of an abusive relationship, but it's also a story about the atmosphere and attitudes that foster that kind of abuse and enshrine the abuser in a position of institutional power. The result is a brutal duet played out between actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and a story with madness at its core, the madness of men so driven towards the highest level of achievement that they're willing to destroy themselves and others to get there. It is a film of sometimes unbearable emotional intensity and so tightly coiled for so much of its running time that when it finally and fully explodes in its finale, it leaves you breathless.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Blue Valentine (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: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling
Country: USA

Where does love go? Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine does not attempt to answer that question, but instead offers a frank, sometimes brutal, meditation on the vacuum created once affection spends itself. This is a portrait of a relationship on the precipice, of two people torn apart by their personal disappointments and struggling to keep their heads above water, to keep things together, to find some scrap of happiness that would make it all worthwhile. That description probably makes the film sound harsh and depressing, but while Blue Valentine is definitely a very serious piece, it’s also one that can be surprisingly funny, and one which contains two stellar performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Beautifully crafted and executed, Blue Valentine is an affecting and dramatically rich film that resonates.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday's Top 5... 2014's Underseen Gems

Before the holiday movie season kicks into high gear, take some time to check out these underseen films from earlier in the year, now available on video and on demand

#5: Locke

Because Locke is basically just Tom Hardy driving around for 80 minutes, talking to various people on the phone, it's easy to understand why few people have taken a chance on it. It sounds... boring. But a description doesn't really do justice to how good the film is as a character driven drama (even if most of the characters only exist off-screen), and Hardy's performance is phenomenal.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Review: Birdman (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zack Galifianakis, Naomi Watts

Gimmicks are a double-edged sword. On the one hand a gimmick can bring attention to a film which, in a crowded marketplace, might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. On the other hand, a gimmick can dominate conversation in such a way that the movie itself gets lost even as people are talking about it. Designed to look like it is unfolding in one long, continuous take, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman has a gimmick that can't be ignored, but it is more than a mere exercise in form. A vital and exciting film as much for its technical wizardry as for the bravura performance as its center, Birdman is a singularly entertaining movie and an experience that shouldn't be missed.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Behind the Music Movies

(fictional musicians edition)

#5: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

At the risk of engaging in hyperbole, Walk Hard is one of the funniest movies of the last decade. A satire of musical biopics that follows its title character through several decades and musical styles, and riffs on the personas of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Brian Wilson (just to name a few), Walk Hard is sharp and highly quotable. It's shocking how often the phrase "I'm cut in half pretty bad" comes in handy in real life.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Maps to the Stars (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Julianne Moore, John Cusack

For me, Maps to the Stars is a bit of return to form for David Cronenberg, whose last two films - the decent, but kind of bloodless A Dangerous Method, and the ambitious but dull Cosmopolis - didn't really do much for me. A bit messy, tonally inconsistent, full of "unlikeable" characters, and centering on subject matter that can most generously be described as "uncomfortable," Maps is certain to have its detractors, but I enjoyed it for its dark comedy, its scathing view of celebrity, and its terrific performances. That said, after this film and Interstellar it will be some time before I need to see another film which finds it necessary to have its characters repeat one section of one poem over and over and over again.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Interstellar (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain

Whatever else you might say about Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, you certainly can't accuse it of lacking in ambition. This is a film which operates on a grand scale, creating new cinematic vistas which, like Gravity last year, ought to be seen and experienced on the big screen. On a purely visual level, Interstellar is often spectacular. Narratively and thematically it is severely wanting and emotionally empty. The "emotional" part wouldn't necessarily be a problem - plenty of great science fiction films are best described as "cold" or "clinical," after all - but given that Interstellar's story all comes down to the power of love, that lack of emotional impact is a problem. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of talk about feelings throughout, but what does that amount to when the characters are so thin and so much of the dialogue is a re-write or two away from being ready for consumption? But, hey, at least it looks great.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

* * * *

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman

Fantastic Mr. Fox so perfectly exemplifies Wes Anderson's storytelling and visual style that it's amazing that it took him 5 films to get there. Adapted from the children's book by Roald Dahl, the film allows Anderson to indulge in both the homemade aesthetic that typically informs his work as well as the thematic concern over relationships between sons and father (or father figures) which comes up time and again in his films. Funny, charming, and beautifully rendered, Fantastic Mr. Fox is easily one of Anderson's best films - and I say that as someone whose feelings about pretty much all of his films are positive.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

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: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Meribel Verdu
Country: Mexico

Before he created new cinematic vistas in Gravity, before unfolding a terrifying and bleak vision of the future in Children of Men, before putting a dark spin on the Harry Potter series with The Prisoner of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuaron made a small character-driven film that is part sex comedy, part relationship drama, part road movie, and part exploration of a nation divided against itself by the politics of poverty. Though discussion of the film often drifts towards the sexuality it displays so freely, Y Tu Mama Tambien is much more than the sum of its characters’ parts; it’s a deeply felt work about the ways that people come together and, eventually, how they come apart.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Cerebral Space Movies

#5: The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky's divisive multi-story epic isn't strictly a "space movie," but one of its three storylines centers on "Tommy the space traveler," who floats through deep space in a bubble in the company of a tree. The film is a meditation on life and death and the necessity of accepting the latter as part of the former and is filled with some glorious and bizarre images.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Blood Pressure (2012)

* * 1/2

Director: Sean Garrity
Starring: Michelle Giroux

A woman receives a letter. It reveals that someone has been watching her, secretly assessing her for a special task. As the letter writer has determined, she's dissatisfied with her life both at home, where she is ignored and unappreciated by her husband and children, and at work, where she finds herself at odds with a mircomanaging superior determined to find fault with everything she does, and ready for a change - even if it means following the increasingly convoluted instructions of an anonymous correspondent. Sean Garrity's Blood Pressure has a premise that could send its story in a few different directions and ends up falling somewhere between thriller and romance, and for much of its running time it spins an intriguing yarn that becomes increasingly engrossing - at least right up until the story hits its final act and goes hard off the rails.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Review: St. Vincent (2014)

* * *

Director: Theodore Melfi
Starring: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts

Ten years ago, St. Vincent would have starred Jack Nicholson and become another notch in his series of "curmudgeon with a heart of gold" movies. Nicholson's loss (and apparently he actually was signed to the film at one point) is ultimately Bill Murray's gain, giving him a great character to play, even if the film itself is a bit messy, stacking subplots on top of each other until it seems like the narrative might collapse under the weight. Nevertheless, I enjoyed St. Vincent quite a bit. Sure, the movie is a veritable grab bag of familiar storylines and character beats thrown together, and it is deeply sentimental, but it has charm enough that you feel inclined to forgive it for its more formulaic elements and just enjoy it for what it is.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo

The scariest thing about Nightcrawler's protagonist is not that he commits moral transgressions, but that he seems to lack the ability to recognize them as transgressions at all. To him everything is merely an opportunity to lift himself to the next level of success, as if he learned the motivational/self-help teachings which form the basis of his own speech in a vacuum. Taking the hoary old cliche that "if it bleeds, it leads" (a line actually uttered by a character in the film) to its greatest possible extreme, he is perhaps exactly what our culture deserves for the way that it values sensationalism over substance, and for our seemingly unquenchable hunger for violence. Playing the amoral center of the story, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers his best performance to date, one which is chilling and weirdly, darkly funny, and mesmerizing at every turn, even if the film itself sometimes strains to match it. To be sure, the film is visually slick and confident in a way that not many debuts are, but while Nightcrawler is certainly a "really good" movie, it never quite comes together in such a way as to become a "great" one.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Leni Riefenstahl: The Seduction of Genius

Leni Riefenstahl is one of the most controversial filmmakers of all time, if not the most controversial. Because of the circumstances under which she made her most famous films, and because of her almost sociopathic refusal (or inability) to acknowledge any level of wrongdoing by making propaganda for one of history's most famous villains, any assessment of her work naturally invites a host of other questions: can art be separated from the artist? Can a film be considered "good" even if its subject matter and intent is evil? Is it possible to actively work with a dictatorship while remaining "unpolitical"? Beyond film specific questions, discussion of Riefenstahl also invites broader questions about the act of passive collaboration, levels of guilt, and the appropriate ways to engage with those who have collaborated, either actively or passively, with a dictatorship in the aftermath of that dictatorship's end. Riefenstahl is a complex figure, nearly impossible to consider on her own, which is why it's all the more impressive that author Rainer Rother manages to pack such a detailed and thorough accounting of her life and career into such a slim volume. The Seduction of Genius is a great book about a troubling figure which charts both the evolution of Riefenstahl the woman, and the evolution of her public image.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: Fright Night (2011)

* * *

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Toni Collette

What could the sweetly offbeat comedy Lars and the Real Girl and wicked horror remake Fight Night possibly have in common? To my total shock, a director (weirder still, Lars was preceded by Mr. Woodcock, and Fright Night was followed by this year's Million Dollar Arm - could four films be any less alike?). Craig Gillespie is the director in question, a filmmaker who isn't yet a "name" but is apparently quite versatile. Fright Night (a remake of the 1985 film of the same name) is not a great film like Lars (which was, and remains, one of my favorite films from 2007), but it's a pretty good movie, darkly funny, gory, and entertaining as hell. I guess that makes Colin Farrel one for two where remakes are concerned.