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

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Review: Results (2015)

* *

Director: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan

If I had guessed, after seeing Andrew Bujalski's weird and wonderful Computer Chess, what direction he would go in next as a filmmaker, my last guess would have been a low stakes romantic comedy. Yet his follow up film, Results, is just that, though it still possesses the shaggy quirkiness of its indie roots instead of the formulaic gloss typical of Hollywood's take on the genre. The result is almost successful, in that Bujalski avoids a lot of the overworn tropes of the genre and puts a different spin on the tropes that he does use, but Results is also so unworried in its storytelling, so mellow in attitude, that it actually ends up being a little boring. If you responded to the low-fi dynamism of Computer Chess, you're likely to be disappointed with Results, which feels like the director dipping his toe into the mainstream to see if he likes the temperature.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Review: Girlhood (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Celine Sciamma
Starring: Karidja Toure

In Celine Sciamma's Girlhood, adolescence is not comprised of one story, but many, its protagonist developing not one clear identity, but trying out several to see what sticks. The title (the English language title, at any rate; the French title is Bande de Filles and translates more accurately as "Girl Gang") suggests something universal, but it's really a work of bracing specificity. It's an atypical film by design, as Sciamma set out to make a film about young, black women because such characters are so rarely seen in French films (whether, as a white director, she accurately depicts the experience of black women of a certain economic milieu isn't for me to say), but while the experiences that it depicts might not be things that we can all relate to, it is nevertheless made compelling by the film.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Natural Disaster Movies

#5: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Poseidon Adventure is a film that could easily have ended up being utterly ridiculous and cheesy. It is, after all, about a bunch of people trying to escape an ocean liner that has been flipped upside down in the Atlantic Ocean as a result of a tsunami. However, the film is packed with great character actors (including Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowall, and Ernest Borgnine) who find the right balance between acting in a fashion to meet the "bigness" of the production, while still crafting actual characters. The 2006 version might have better effects, but it's nowhere near the better film.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Netflix Recommends... What's Your Number (2011)

* *

Director: Mark Mylod
Starring: Anna Faris, Chris Evans

Based on my having watched This Means War, The Other Woman, and Brokeback Mountain, this time Netflix thought I might like What's Your Number?, a romantic comedy which has maybe a little bit in common with those first two films, and nothing at all in common with the third, unless you think that having a minor character who happens to be gay qualifies What's Your Number? to be compared to Ang Lee's Oscar winning masterpiece. I didn't really know a lot about What's Your Number? going into it (I vaguely remembered trailers for it from 2011) and picked it from among my recommendations because I was intrigued by the bizarre trio of films that made up Netflix's reasoning, and I have to say that it was surprisingly not terrible. It's not good by any stretch, and its premise is more than a little insulting, but it does have a certain degree of charm courtesy of its two stars.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Battleship (2012)

Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Taylor Kitsch
Domestic Gross: $65,422,625

Not that there was ever a good reason to make a movie based on the board game Battleship, but I have to think that at some point there was a better reason than to make yet another humanity vs. aliens story which turns out to be as generic as the production budget is high ($209 million, high). Battleship is a film that exists for no reason except in the hope (misplaced, as it turns out) that brand recognition would translate to box office dollars. It doesn't even have the distinction of knowing what kind of movie it wants to be and is a bizarre mishmash of tones and genres, a film haphazardly put together from the bits and pieces of a bunch of different kinds of stories and then stretched out to an interminable 131 minutes. At the very least a film based on a board game - even one which only references its source in as brief and perfunctory a fashion as this one - should have a decent sense of fun. Battleship doesn't even have that, unless its thread of retro jingoism stirs something in you.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

* * *

Director: Martin Ritt
Starring: Richard Burton

"What the hell do you think spies are?... They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me, little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives." I don't know that there are many popular writers with world views as consistently cynical and hard-edged as John le Carre, whose stories so often turn on the worst in human behavior (much of it sanctioned and/or encouraged by government agencies) and the men whose spirits have been decimated by it. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is no different, which makes it a somewhat hard movie to enjoy because it's so depressing that you don't necessarily want to watch it again, even though it's a very well made piece of work. Maybe the fact that you don't want to watch it again (or, at least, that you don't want to see it again for a while) is a sign of just how good it is and how effectively this adaptation tells the story.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

21st Century Essentials: This Is England (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: Shane Meadows
Starring: Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham
Country: United Kingdom

Shane Meadows This Is England is a film that succeeds in two thematic respects. First as a story about that in between stage of adolescence, when one is still young enough and underdeveloped enough to still be considered a kid, but emotionally attuned enough to be struggling with very adult issues; second as a story about how hatred is learned and created in a volatile space borne out of fear. It is an uncommonly intelligent and sensitive movie in both respects. In fact, so complete and fascinating is Meadows’ depiction of the milieu and its characters that This Is England has resulted in two sequel tv miniseries, with another one on the way. But it all starts here, with the story of a young misfit struggling to make sense of the world and find a place where he belongs, and taking the wrong fork in the road in the process.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

* * *

Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts

"It is my intention to astonish you all." The statement, made by the heroine of Far From the Madding Crowd is a bold one, particularly for a woman in the late 19th century, and it's one of several that she makes. While Thomas Hardy's best known characters are his tragic ones (Jude, Tess, the man known as the Mayor of Casterbridge), Bathsheba Everdene may very well be his best, a strong willed, independent minded woman who, through her willingness to pull up her bootstraps and get her hands dirty in order to get a job done, is sort of a precursor to Scarlett O'Hara. She's one of the great female characters in literature, and in Thomas Vinterberg's adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd she is brought beautifully to life by Carey Mulligan. Even if the film itself doesn't rise to the level of nuance and perfection of that central performance, the performance is more than enough reason to check this one out.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron

The summer movie season has only just started, but honestly it might as well be over now because I doubt it's going to get much better than Mad Max: Fury Road. Writer/director George Miller's triumphant return to the franchise which started his career 36 years ago (and which he last revisited 30 years ago - yes, it's been that long since Thunderdome) is a work of great vision and incredible execution. It is loaded to the brim with ridiculous, amazing action, grounded by rich thematic concerns (its success in this regard is all the more impressive for how little dialogue the film contains), and augmented by some incredible world building (which, again, is impressive given how little is said throughout). It is a relentless thrill ride that barely stops to take a breath for 120 minutes and when it's over you feel like you've just been repeatedly punched in the face - but in a good way.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Orlando Bloom
Domestic Gross: $47,398,413

When I watch movies like Kingdom of Heaven, I inevitably end up wishing that they had been made sometime between 1955 and 1965, when historical epics had a pageantry equal to their scope. I say that not because Kingdom of Heaven is a bad movie, but because the CGI has rendered it charmless and dated before its time. While films like Ben-Hur and Spartacus and Cleopatra may feel old fashioned when viewed today, they also feel like films that were made, rather than merely assembled. While it might be easier to fill out the ranks of a massive army by creating a bunch of figures with a computer, it always ends up looking like exactly what it is, and it's never as impressive as having thousands of extras who are actually there, even if they're only there for the sake of numbers. As it stands, Kingdom of Heaven is a big movie made that ends up feeling sort of insignificant and small because the meat on its bones seems so thin. That's the way with movies now, but it's still a shame that there's so little grandeur and spectacle in productions anymore, particularly in the ones that demand it, as this one does.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review: Austenland (2013)

* *

Director: Jerusha Hess
Starring: Keri Russell

It's a shame for the second half of Austenland that it's attached to the first. By the time it actually begins to relax into its premise and decide on the tone it wants to hit, it becomes rather charming (even if there are certain issues with respect to logic) and the sort of film that can make for a nice diversion. To get there, though, you have to muddle through that first half, where the film tries to merge the subtle comedy of Jane Austen with broad, sort of slapsticky, kind of vulgar comedy, and demonstrates what appears to be a complete disinterest in so much as establishing, let alone developing, its characters. That, in the end, the film almost works regardless is a testament to how strong its strengths ultimately are.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Movie Reboots

#5: Star Trek

The Star Trek film series was pretty much dead after 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, so restarting it as a viable franchise required something pretty radical. 2009's Star Trek achieved that by taking the series back to the start and introducing a new cast as the classic, original characters. It paid off both critically and financially and the rebooted series is now heading into its third installment.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review: The Age of Adaline (2015)

* * *

Director: Lee Toland Krieger
Starring: Blake Lively

The Age of Adaline is a film with a fantastical premise that succeeds precisely because it doesn't treat that premise as fantastical at all. At its core, Adaline is a very sincere love story that plays everything with a straight face, and somehow that works even though that love story plays out between a 107 year old woman and a 30-something year old man who is the son of a man the woman once loved and left behind. That probably makes this sound like lurid soap opera, but it really isn't. It's a solid, classical type of film that we don't see too often anymore in our age of irony and meta jokes, but that we could ultimately use more of. It helps that the film is anchored by a wonderful central performance, which is not something I ever expected to say about Blake Lively.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: The Beaver (2011)

Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin
Domestic Gross: $970,816

The premise of The Beaver was probably always going to be something of a tough sell. Although it's the story of a man who one day starts to live his life through a hand puppet, which sounds like the making of a comedy where wacky hijinks will ensue, The Beaver is actually a rather serious film about the crippling effects of depression on the person suffering from it and their loved ones. This isn't to say that making a hit out of a story like this couldn't be done, as after all two of star Mel Gibson's biggest movies are Lethal Weapon, in which his character is suicidal and reckless following the loss of his wife, and Signs, in which his character is barely functioning he's so weighted down with grief for his recently deceased wife. The difference is in the public's perception of Gibson by 2011, which ensured that rather than becoming even a modest, at-least-it-broke-even kind of hit, it instead became one of Gibson's lowest grossing films ever (only The Singing Detective and The Million Dollar Hotel have grossed less domestically). The Beaver is the sort of work that makes you question whether it's possible to separate the art from the artist because it's impossible to watch Gibson play this broken shell of a person without it being filtered through the lens of his very public personal implosion.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review: Lost River (2015)

* 1/2

Director: Ryan Gosling
Starring: Iain De Caestecker, Christina Hendricks, Saorise Ronan, Matt Smith

A flaming bicycle speeding past. A door shaped like a demon mouth, making it look like those who enter it are being devoured. The head of a dinosaur crashing through a windshield. A girl riding high above the ground, perched atop an easy chair set up in the back of a convertible. Ryan Gosling's directorial debut Lost River is full of dynamic images, but the film itself fails to live up to them. Emotionally and narratively inert, and confusing "weird" for "compelling," Lost River is a film that unfolds without any real sense of purpose and instead plays more like a fan tribute to Gosling's favorite filmmakers, with heavy emphasis on David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. Gosling will no doubt make another movie as a director someday, but hopefully by that time his sense of identity as a filmmaker will have developed as much as his eye for strange beauty.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Memento (2000)

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: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano
Country: United States

Before he helped usher in a new era in the comic book hero genre with his Batman trilogy, before he proved that it is possible to create blockbusters out of original ideas with Inception and Interstellar, Christopher Nolan made a tricky little thriller called Memento. A formal marvel which manages to tell its main story backwards (and its secondary story forwards), winding its way back to the beginning without losing any narrative momentum and without resting on the laurels of its hook, Memento is also a terrific little character piece. Using a classic revenge tale as its genesis, Memento makes the most of its premise and its structure in order to tell a story based as much in the psychology of its main character as in the mechanics of its plotting. While Nolan would go on to make films that do a lot with a lot of resources, Memento demonstrates that he's equally capable of doing a lot with a little and creating something of lasting impact.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Ten Years Later... Crash (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: Paul Haggis
Starring: Don Cheadle, Terrence Howard, Michael Pena, Matt Dillon, Ludacris, Sandra Bullock, Ryan Phillippe, Brendan Fraser

Ten years ago today, Paul Haggis' Crash opened to mostly positive reviews (it has 75% on Rotten Tomatoes and 69 on Metacritic). Some ten months later (and from that point on) it would fall victim to a curious phenomenon in which a film seems to be almost universally liked right up until the moment when it wins the Oscar for Best Picture, after which it becomes dismissed as a work that was unworthy of even being nominated in the first place. This doesn't happen with every Best Picture winner, but it happens often enough (especially in the last few years, it seems, as the general public becomes more and more aware of the behind the scenes maneuvering that goes into every Oscar season and every Oscar win), and when people write articles about the "Worst Best Picture Winners of All Time" and the like, they rarely seem to take into account the fact that, while a certain film maybe hasn't aged very well, Best Picture winners tend to be films that people really liked at the time. Crash was a film that, generally speaking, people liked at the time of its release. I didn't, particularly, because I found it facile and heavy handed (I can't prove this, as I wasn't blogging then, so you'll just have to take my word for it), but I didn't hate it either. I still don't hate it, but I find it to be a very frustrating film in which some genuinely moving moments and some very good performances are stuck inside a film that superficially stirs the thematic pot without ever actually coming close to addressing the real issue it presents as its raison d'etre.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: Goodbye to Language (2014)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Heloise Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier, Zoe Bruneau

To start with I'll clarify that the lack of star rating should not, in any respect, be taken as a measure of the quality of Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language. It's merely an acknowledgment of the fact that I didn't see the film in its intended form and, after some thought, decided that in light of that it wouldn't be fair to rate it on a scale. The full title of the film is Goodbye to Language 3D and it's clear from watching it in 2D that, unlike a lot of 3D films, this really does need to be watched in that format to get the full and intended artistic effect of what Godard is trying to do. However, as a 3D, non-English, experimental arthouse film whose title warns that the filmmaker is tossing out cinematic language as we know it is unlikely ever to hit a theater anywhere near me, I had to settle for the 2D version. That version is interesting enough, but it's also obviously missing something.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Ishtar (1987)

Director: Elaine May
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty
Domestic Gross: $14,375,181

How a film is perceived has as much to do with the work itself as with the audience taking it in. That principle has rarely been made clearer to me than while watching Ishtar, the notorious 1987 film which bombed at the box office and, largely, with critics. To go by critics viewing the film in 1987, Ishtar is "piddling" and "dreadful" with its few funny scenes spaced "as far apart as oases in the Sahara." It's weird because I watched the film for the first time recently and found it to be clever and funny. It's excessive as hell - on that point, at least, the film's original viewers were spot on - but, I dunno, if a studio is willing to throw $51 million at you to make a comedy (for point of reference in terms of just how much that was in 1987, the highest grossing film of that year made $167 million total, which is $20 million less than Age of Ultron just made this weekend, and was one of only four films that year to crack $100 million), then why the hell wouldn't you go for broke? Arguably it wasn't worth it, since Elaine May hasn't directed a film since, but in this case reputation is nothing; Ishtar deserves a chance to win you over.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Netflix Recommends... Let's Be Cops (2014)


Director: Luke Greenfield
Starring: Jake Johnson, Damon Wayans Jr.

Yes, Netflix recommended it - and on the basis of my having watched The Interview, no less - but this one is really my own fault. As a fan of New Girl and of Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. in New Girl, I genuinely though there was a chance that I might enjoy Let's Be Cops at least a little bit, despite the scathing reviews the film inspired and despite the inherently queasy-making nature of its premise. Good, challenging movies can be made from transgressive premises - not in the case of Let's Be Cops, but in the case of other, better movies less content to cater to the lowest common denominator and more willing to make the effort to resist going for the easiest gag at every turn. I'd love to watch that movie; instead I watched this.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Review: While We're Young (2015)

* * *

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

Youth is wasted on the young, but in the case of Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, it is also wasted on the middle-aged. Though it's being marketed as a somewhat raucous generational comedy, as if it's a gentler and less raunchy version of Neighbors, no one should go into While We're Young expecting a laugh-a-minute movie. It has some lines and moments that are very trailer friendly and it is a funny movie, but it's funny in that sharp, find the humor in tragedy and the tragedy in humor sort of way that is typical of Baumbach's work - this may be more conventional and broadly appealing than the filmmaker's previous films, but it's still Baumbach. Featuring a couple of great performances at its core, While We're Young is a strong effort, even if it deflates a bit in its final act.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Adaptations of Classic Novels Since 2000

#5: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Though surprisingly divisive due largely to the attachment and loyalty that some viewers have to the 1995 mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, Joe Wright's version of the Jane Austen novel is a film that holds up really well. Featuring what is arguably Kiera Knightley's best performance (and one for which she received an Oscar nomination), the 2005 Pride & Prejudice is a strong film even if time constraints mean that it can never quite achieve the depth of the 1995 version.