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Saturday, February 28, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

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: Niels Arden Oplev
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist
Country: Sweden

Six years after the fact (and three after the American remake), the first screen adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo should not feel as revolutionary as it still does. Yet it’s still a gut punch to watch a film so unflinching in its treatment of sexual violence, so determined to see that violence from a female point of view, and so eager to not merely give its female protagonist agency, but allow her to seize it for herself. Although the narrative’s mechanics make it somewhat unlikely for success as a film (for one thing, the two leads don’t even meet until the halfway point and up until then are operating in their own separate stories), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is nevertheless a spellbinding piece of work thanks in no small part to the fact that the girl in question happens to be one of the most compelling and fascinating female characters ever committed to film.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Movies About Con Artists

#5: Catch Me If You Can

Steven Spielberg's take on the exploits of real life con artist Frank Abagnale is one of the director's most light-hearted works and features what is, easily, one of Leonardo DiCaprio's most light-hearted performances. A cat and mouse chase story which sees DiCaprio's version of Abagnale trying to keep a step of two of Tom Hanks' FBI agent, Catch Me If You Can is a fun and very entertaining ride.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Tom at the Farm (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal

To watch an Xavier Dolan film is to watch the films that he was watching at the time he made his. This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself (the same thing could, after all, be said of Quentin Tarantino), particularly when a filmmaker has such good taste in the influences worn on his or her sleeve and such a keen ability to put their own twist on it. Dolan's 2013 thriller Tom at the Farm plays like something from Hitchcock - deeply unsettling, built around anticipation of something happening more than the thing itself, sexually preoccupied, and centering on a protagonist who combines both the "cool blonde" and the unwitting man dragged into a plot he couldn't have foreseen - but it is also, unmistakably, a film with its own voice and point of view. It may also very well be Dolan's least self-indulgent film, running at a brisk pace and featuring not an ounce of narrative of stylistic fat.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Force Majeure (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ruben Ostlund
Starring: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli

What does it mean if, in a moment of crisis, you are revealed to be something less than what you thought you were, less than what you were expected to be? Where do you go from there, and what sort of lasting repercussions will that have? Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure is about such an event, one which results in a family being pushed to the brink, and with the very concept of "manhood" itself being thoroughly dismantled. Force Majeure is a potent and well executed character-based drama, and sometimes a surprisingly (and darkly) funny comedy. Why it failed to make the final cut for the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film category is a mystery to me since the film hits so many of the targets it aims for, but then again the category is well known for its glaring omissions, so Force Majeure will simply join the ever growing list of wonderful non-English language films overlooked by AMPAS.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Oscars: Best & Worst

Best: Julianne Moore Finally Gets An Oscar - About damn time.

Worst: Playing Off the Winners - New year, same complaint. Stop playing off 'the little people.' Seriously, Matthew McConaughey's speech last year rambled on for, like, two hours and no one in the orchestra started playing. Just let the winners say what they want to say, because when you start playing them off as they're thanking their late spouse or parents or making mention of the important work of helping people in crisis, it just makes you look like a bunch of jackasses, especially when the movie star winners are allowed to take up however much time they want. Good on the director of Ida for just powering through (and through... and through)

Best: Ida! - My favorite film from 2014 won, yay!

Worst: Terrence Howard - WTF was that?

Best: Alexandre Desplat Wins - I've been rooting for Desplat ever since his work in Lust/Caution. His win was well deserved and about time (now if only AMPAS could get around to throwing a bone Roger Deakins' way).

Worst: Neil Patrick Harris as Host - Sorry to say it, love NHP generally and think he's been a great host of other awards show, but this was flat from beginning to end.

Best: Eddie Redmayne's Win - That was adorable.

Worst: The Sound of Music: Look, The Sound of Music is a fine film and I like Lady Gaga (and she killed it in this performance) but, guys, we did not have time for that.

Best: Glory (Performance & Win) - Wonderfully staged and performed. The musical performances this year were just about the only thing that made this year's show worth it, and Common and John Legend's speech was wonderful and poignant (though, seriously, who "Woo!"s during a speech about the ongoing, horrible issue of racial inequality?)

Worst: Don't Drag David Oyelowo Into This - So, after all the hubbub about the Oscars and the industry being too white and too lacking in diversity, some genius decided the thing to do was write a joke taking a shot at one of the very few films from last year that actually starred a person of color in the lead role and then get a clearly uncomfortable David Oyelowo to do the dirty work of delivering the punchline? Lame.

Best: John Travolta: Good for him for having a sense of humor about himself. I doubt there are many other people in that audience who would have been quite as game. Also that Ben Affleck/Benedict Cumberbatch joke was one of the few NPH got to tell that was actually funny.

Worst: Birdman Wins Best Picture: I don't think Birdman is a bad film (I thought it was a good one, actually), but Best Picture? No. Not even close.

Best: Everything Is Awesome - The number definitely lived up to its name, from Lonely Island to Tegan & Sara to the Lego Oscar statues to Batman. This was one of the most entertaining "Best Song" performances ever.

Worst: Neil Patrick Harris' Predictions - This ongoing joke was painful and the payoff was not even remotely worth the approximately 14 hours leading up to it.

Best: Patricia Arquette's Speech - I fully expect that that shot of Meryl Streep cheering her on is going to become the new go to gif for whenever someone makes a particularly salient point on the internet.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscar Winners

As they're announced:

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Costume Design: Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida (Poland)

Best Live Action Short: The Phone Call

Best Documentary Short Subject: Crisis Hot Line: Veterans Press 1

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash

Best Sound Editing: American Sniper

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Best Animated Short: Feast

Best Animated Feature: Big Hero 6

Best Production Design: Anna Pinnock, Alan Stockhausen, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman

Best Film Editing: Tom Cross, Whiplash

Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour

Best Original Song: "Glory," Selma

Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Screenplay: Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo, Birdman

Best Adapted Screenplay: Graham Moore, The Imitation Game

Best Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Picture: Birdman

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscar Predictions

Tomorrow's the big day, my predictions:

Best Picture: Boyhood

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Actor: Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Imitation Game

Best Film Editing: Boyhood

Best Cinematography: Birdman

Best Costume Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Original Score: The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song: "Glory," Selma

Best Sound Editing: American Sniper

Best Sound Mixing: Whiplash

Best Visual Effects: Interstellar

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida

Best Animated Feature: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Best Documentary Feature: Citizenfour

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Two Days, One Night (2014)

* * * *

Director: Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Starring: Marion Cotillard

Over the course of 27 years and 9 films, the Dardenne brothers have become the modern masters of the moral quandary. Often their films center on one act or event, one decision which will have heavy consequences, depicting that choice through the eyes of a person who lives on the fringes of society who doesn't necessarily have the luxury to make the wrong choice. This isn't to say that the Dardennes are preachy; their stories may often center on the decision between doing the "right" thing or the "wrong" thing (and what it means for something to be right or wrong, given a character's circumstances), but their tone is never judgmental, merely observational. In that respect, Two Days, One Night fits easily with previous films like L'Enfant and Lorna's Silence, all being films which are concerned with questions of guilt and morality. In other respects, this film is a departure, being a bit more overtly plotted, feeling slightly less free-flowing than the directors' previous works, though it is by no means a "lesser" film for that. Two Days, One Night is a deeply engaging, riveting film; it is a small movie and a short one, but man is it ever great.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: The Homesman (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Starring: Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones

I can't recall the last movie I saw which left me with as many mixed feelings as Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman. The film is beautiful to look at but emotionally inert. Well-acted but anchored by characters who never really feel consistent. It seems to want to stand as a statement about the emotional and psychological hardships faced by women in the most masculine of settings - the frontier - but tries to accomplish this through female characters marginalized by society and, ultimately, by a story which leaves the final word and the last act to its central male character, who makes a sudden turn to become an avenging angel of feminine honor. I've sat with this film now for three days and I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it and its bizarre point-of-view.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: Dear White People (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Justin Simien
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Brandon P. Bell, Dennis Haysbert

Justin Simien's feature debut Dear White People feels like a great satire right up until it pulls back the curtain during the closing credits and reminds you that its climactic event isn't satirical at all, but disgustingly true to life. Though structurally a bit shapeless, the film is so sharp, funny, and so willing to openly confront and explore social issues that most films would prefer not to admit exist at all, that it feels like nitpicking to focus on what the film could have done better when it does so much so extremely well. At a time when we desperately need work that doesn't just avoid feeding into the notion that we live in a "post-racial" society, but actively points out just how insidious and difficult to shake racism is when its roots are institutional, Dear White People feels like a breath of fresh air.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: The Look of Silence (2015)

* * * *

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

"You can't imagine what would have happened." That's the response given to the interviewer when he asks what would have happened to him if he were asking the questions he's asking during the period of the "Communist" purge. It's a chilling thing to read in print, but it's even more so to see and hear it said, its impact in no way dulled by the fact that it's surrounded by other deeply disturbing moments. The Look of Silence is director Joshua Oppenheimer's companion piece to his 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, and tackles the same subject as that previous film (the Indonesian killings of 1965-66) but from the perspective of the family of one of the victims, and in the absence of the overt stylization of the first film. Though it would hardly seem possible, The Look of Silence is somehow even more powerful and harrowing than the previous film.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Amelie (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: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou
Country: France

Amélie Poulin. The quirky girl to end all quirky girls. The dreamer. The romantic. The capturer of hearts the world over. Rarely is a character like Amélie the subject of a film; more often than not “Amélie” types - those women seemingly assembled out of whimsy whose surface masks just enough despair to allow the male hero to come to her rescue and “fix” her - are the objects, the love interests who help male protagonists realize their true potential. But this is her story, and that sense of agency that Amélie is afforded by the film has played no small role in ensuring that Amélie remains such a fresh and enduring piece of work. There have been imitators, but few films can match the effortless charm and beauty of Amélie.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Directors with Disowned Movies

#5: David O. Russell

David O. Russell isn't among my favorite directors. I think he's good, but a bit overrated, particularly now that's he's crossed over into a mainstream/Academy friendly period in his career. However, any director who has Three Kings to his credit is clearly someone capable of greatness, which is why Accidental Love (formerly known as Nailed, back when Russell was actually taking credit for it) looks like a fascinating trainwreck to me rather than just a flat out trainwreck.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Canadian Film Review: An Eye for Beauty (2014)

* *

Director: Denys Arcand
Starring: Eric Bruneau, Melanie Mercosky, Melanie Thierry, Marie-Josée Croze

Beautiful people doing ugly things in beautiful locations. An Eye for Beauty, the latest from Canadian master Denys Arcand, will give you a serious case of house envy, but inspires little beyond that. A listless drama about the emotional destruction wrought by an affair, Arcand reunites with actress Marie-Josée Croze for the first time since 2003's The Barbarian Invasions, for which she won Best Actress and he Best Screenplay at Cannes, and then gives her nearly nothing to do, which is a particular shame since she's always the most interesting person on screen whenever she appears. A rare misstep for Arcand, An Eye for Beauty is as emotionally empty as it is gorgeously photographed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Ten Years Later... Hitch (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: Andy Tennant
Starring: Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James

Generally speaking, there are few types of men more repellent than pick up artists - on the spectrum they're above Men's Rights Activists, but well below men who, you know, treat women like human beings rather than civilizations to be conquered - so making a movie about one (and a romantic comedy, no less) should have been a dicey prospect. As it turns out, however, when you cast someone as easily likable as Will Smith in the lead, you end up sidestepping a lot of the less savory aspects of pick up artist culture and the resulting film is, if not feminist exactly, then at least not the steaming pile of misogyny that it easily could have been. Sure, there's at least one joke that rests on the inherent "hilarity" of gay panic, but when it comes down to it I'm not sure that Hitch could more firmly have its heart in the right place. Color me shocked.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Review: What Time Is It There? (2001)

* * * 1/2

Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Starring: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi, Lu Yi-Ching

You would be hard pressed to find a lonelier movie than Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There?. A story of isolation, longing, grief, and despair, What Time Is It There? is without question a bleak film, but thanks to Tsai's delicate and deeply humane approach, it isn't bleak in the way that makes it unwatchable or unbearably depressing. Instead it is beautiful and hypnotic, a rich piece of work that leaves you with plenty to ponder when it's finished, and which reveals new layers with subsequent viewings. Though it comes in at just under two hours, it is definitely a very slow moving film and requires patience on the part of the viewer - but that patience is definitely rewarded.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

* * * *

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal

Has any role ever done more to upend a star's screen persona than the role of Martha did for Elizabeth Taylor? Even now, almost 50 years after the release of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and four years after Taylor's death, it's still sort of shocking to see glamorous Elizabeth Taylor in the role of brash, vulgar Martha, delivering a performance entirely lacking in vanity and lacking in any moment where it feels like she's playing a "character." Making the performance even more impressive is that a first time film director helped bring it to life on the big screen (granted that director is Mike Nichols, but it would be an impressive feat for a seasoned director, let alone as a debut), and that neither the performance, nor the film, has diminished in power since its original release.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Sibling Director Teams

#5: Albert & Allen Hughes

I list the Hughes brothers not so much for their most recent output (though I know that both The Book of Eli and From Hell have their fans), but for their first films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. The Hughes brothers are great stylists and when the screenplay is strong, the results are compelling, and even when the screenplay isn't up to par the films are always interesting on a visual level.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: Love is Strange (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ira Sachs
Starring: Alfred Molina, John Lithgow

The "love" in Love is Strange - a gentle and carefully crafted character study from Ira Sachs - takes several forms. It's the romantic love between two people committed to each other, the love one feels for those they're related to, love between friends, and the idea of love one might have for someone they've never properly met. The "strange" comes into play with respect to the way that some loves can be undercut by proximity and familiarity while others can endure despite distance. A beautifully observed little character movie, Love is Strange is one of 2014's unassuming little gems, the sort of film that seems to have a small impact at first, but grows the longer that you sit with it after the fact.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Review: The Act of Killing (2013)

* * * *

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous

The Act of Killing is easily one of the most upsetting films I've ever seen. I suppose that that's a good thing, all things considered, and it certainly speaks to the power of this documentary, but there were definitely moments scattered throughout the film when I thought that I just wouldn't be able to keep watching because it so disturbing. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and a contributor who has remained anonymous for fear of retribution, The Act of Killing is an utterly haunting documentary that brings the brutal reality of historical violence into sharp, visceral relief by dressing it up in the pretense of fiction. As a viewer you walk away from the film not only amazed at what the directors managed to pull off, but at the ways that people can compartmentalize themselves, tucking away the horrors that they've either perpetrated or experienced and moving on as if nothing had happened.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Other Woman (2014)

* 1/2

Director: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Lesley Mann

Oh Netflix. You know that when you "recommend" a film to me and then guess that I'll give a low rating, I just can't resist. I wish that I could. I wished that a lot while watching The Other Woman, a comedy of such strange and confused gender politics that it almost seems like it was written in one language, translated into another, and lost all meaning somewhere in between. It also appears to be only half-way written, given the way that plot threads just sort of peter out, resolve themselves off-screen, and sometimes only announce themselves after they've been resolved. One might be inclined to give the film credit for not only being headlined by women but starring two women over 40 at that, but consider this: despite being a movie ostensibly about women and without question marketed towards women (not to mention written by one), The Other Woman still manages to fail the Bechdel test even though passing it would literally only require that the two women at the center of the story have one conversation that isn't about a man.