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

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: Phoenix (2015)

* * * *

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld

The doctor tries to put an optimistic spin on it, telling her that she can have a new face that will allow her to reinvent herself for the post-war world, get a fresh start, leave the horrors of the past behind. But she doesn't want a new face or a new identity or a new life. She wants to look like herself and resume the life she was living before. After an experience that has stripped her of everything - her freedom, her family, her dignity, her face and nearly her life - illusion will be the last thing to go. But as she moves through the physical and social ruins of post-war Berlin, her need to remember is at odds with a nation already in the process of trying to forget. The sixth collaboration between director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss, Phoenix may be their greatest and most deeply felt film yet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

* * *

Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton

In terms of malleability, the Mission: Impossible series may be second only to the Fast & Furious series (which has transitioned from being undercover cop movies, to heist movies, to movies about a bizarre, non-sanctioned special forces team, with what is essentially a stand alone movie about teenagers and street racing in the middle) in terms of its ability to hit the reset button with each new entry. Every film, none of which share a director or a writing team and where the only real constant is Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, strikes its own particular tone and presents its own particular take on the spy movie. It's the sort of series that you can watch entirely out of order without missing a step because there's not a lot of carryover from the previous films (in this respect, Ghost Protocol is an exception, albeit very, very slightly) and the series is defined by its action set pieces, rather than any overarching narrative. If you rank the films according to the skill and audacity of their set pieces, Ghost Protocol would arguably end up on top as, even though the dangling off a plane as it takes off sequence of Rogue Nation is nothing short of impressive, I'm not sure that anything will ever be more go for broke than the sequence where Cruise climbs up and then runs down the Burj Khalifa.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Gemma Bovery (2014)

* * *

Director: Anne Fontaine
Starring: Gemma Arterton

If you look hard enough, I'm sure you could come up with a more unique, more specific cinematic niche than the one that Gemma Arterton seems to be developing as the star of modern day takes on literary classics via adaptations of graphic novels by Posy Simmonds, but I can't think of one. Granted, that currently only makes for two films (Tamara Drewe is the other one), but still. Gemma Bovery finds Arterton living out the broad strokes of the story of Emma Bovary, much to the consternation of her well-meaning neighbor who wants to stop her from making the same mistakes as her literary counterpart. As told by Anne Fontaine, it makes for a film that's a little bit drama and a little bit comedy, one that can skip from being sensual to being farcical without missing a beat.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review: Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

* *

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson

I'm almost loath to review Pitch Perfect 2 because female filmmakers get so few opportunities in general that when one makes a bad movie it almost seems like that casts a pall over all of them. However, given that Pitch Perfect 2 made $183 million against a production budget of $29 million, its financial success may do more to open doors than the artistic success of better films with female directors behind them. I'm not suggesting that this movie isn't funny - it is; I laughed quite a bit, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a film with enough actual story to cover maybe 45 minutes, stretched out to a shapeless and messy 115. Of course, I feel like a lot of films have the "too many detours, not enough getting to the point" problem, which makes me think that teachers ought to play the audio clip of Milhouse van Houten whining, "When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?" every 15 minutes or so during screenwriting classes.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Persepolis (2007)

Director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
Starring: Chiara Mastroianni
Country: France/United States/Iran

Persepolis, adapted from four autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi and directed by her and Vincent Paronnaud, is a truly one of a kind movie that explores a history and point-of-view rarely explored in film, particularly in the Western world: the Iranian Revolution as seen through the eyes of an Iranian woman who lived through it during adolescence. It is a narratively intricate film that sets a coming-of-age story against a story of war and revolution and massive cultural upheaval, weaving its elements together seamlessly to become a moving and beautifully rendered story that is alternately comedic and tragic, as emotionally complex as its story is politically and socially complex.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Generation Clash Comedies

#5: Neighbors

In Nicholas Stoller's Neighbors, the age gap between Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne's young marrieds and Zack Efron's fat boys isn't huge, but the cultural chasm between them is. Figured here as a battle between the generation that grew up with Michael Keaton's Batman versus the one that came of age with Christian Bale's Batman, Neighbors gets its kicks from the group that isn't so far removed from their youth as to be considered "old," but are far enough out of step with youth culture that they're no longer exactly "young," either.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: Beyond the Hills (2012)

* * * *

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur

Movies that take place in cloistered religious communities very rarely end well, though Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills is the rare film of its type that has some degree of compassion for everyone involved and doesn't necessarily cast anyone as a "villain," so much as it underscores how misguided and dangerous strict adherence to a narrow worldview can be. It's not an easy film, particularly if you know that the premise was inspired by something that actually happened, but it's so deeply engrossing that you can't look away and its 155 minutes seem to be over in the blink of an eye. I'm a huge fan of Mungiu's 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days and as a follow up Beyond the Hills did not disappoint.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: True Story

* *

Director: Rupert Goold
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco

True Story opens with the evocative image of a teddy bear being dropped into a suitcase, landing next to the body of a little girl folded up inside. The callousness of the act, of the fact that not only is the girl in the suitcase but that the bear is thrown in, rather than placed, with her, the force of its fall displacing her hair so that strands of it go flying up and over the edge of the suitcase, is stunning. It's a powerful image that the remainder of True Story, a true story based on the memoir of the same name by Michael Finkel, can't live up to. Of course, that might not have been the case if the film had managed to make the actual victims of a truly horrific and, yet sadly commonplace, crime the emotional center of the story, rather than the disgraced writer whose identity was very briefly borrowed by the killer.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

* * *

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones

In the grand pantheon of Coen brothers movies, Intolerable Cruelty, their one foray into romantic comedy, often gets dismissed as being among the least of their works. To be sure, it lacks the staying power and importance of their very best work, but I've always had a certain degree of affection for it. It's a silly movie, but it also has an old school battle of the sexes vibe and I can easily imagine it, with a few tweaks for period sensibility, as a comedy from Hollywood's golden age, maybe with Cary Grant in the George Clooney role and Lauren Bacall in the Catherine Zeta-Jones role. Intolerable Cruelty is arguably the fluffiest movie the Coens have made to date, but it's a lot of fun in its lightness and inconsequentiality.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review: The D Train (2015)

* *

Director: Jarrad Paul
Starring: Jack Black, James Marsden

Mentally, some people never leave high school, living forever in that period of youthful glory when everything still lies ahead. Usually those people, at least as depicted in the high school reunion subgenre of film, were those who were popular and are for that reason reluctant to move on. In The D Train the character living in the past is the exact opposite, a guy remembered by no one except for the other people on the alumni committee, all of whom dislike him despite the fact that his enthusiasm for the reunion probably leads to him doing the lion's share of the work, and avoid him outside the confines of the committee room. To him, the reunion is everything, and since he couldn't be the big man on campus back in high school, he wants to be the hero of the reunion party, and this melancholy comedy charts his efforts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ten Years Later... Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

On this day in 2005

Director: George Clooney
Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson

Good Night, and Good Luck. was one of the best reviewed movies of 2005 and by far the best reviewed of all of George Clooney's directorial efforts, and it was one of the most nominated films at the 78th Academy Awards, yet it doesn't seem to get mentioned very often anymore, even in discussion of Clooney's work. While people still talk about Crash (albeit often negatively and in regard to its Best Picture win) and Brokeback Mountain, two of the other Best Picture nominees, Good Night, and Good Luck. seems to have fallen off the radar. You can chalk this up, I suppose, to the film being very much a work "of the moment," one which was built to have its greatest impact during the exact political/social moment of its release. Still, it seems odd that a film considered so essential at the time of its release should have fallen so far to the wayside.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: The End of the Tour (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segal

The End of the Tour is a movie that's pretty much all talk and no action, a film of ideas and the discussion of experience not unlike My Dinner with Andre, except that there's more movement between locations. It's a deeply engaging, often fascinating picture which confirms director James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) as one of the best contemporary tellers of the character-driven drama, particularly in terms of his laser focus on the subtleties of a relationship between two people. It's the kind of film that throws a lot of academic ideas out about art and artists, but it's never dry or pedantic; it's smart and sometimes funny and often, knowing what we know about David Foster Wallace's death, bittersweet. Above all, it's a really good movie and a great character study.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Netflix Recommends... Body of Lies (2008)

* *

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe

Even though my history with Netflix's recommendations is... let's say spotty (this is the algorithm that has recommended such terrible movies as Runner Runner, The Canyons, and This Means War, but also great movies like Miller's Crossing, The Panic in Needle Park, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes), I still sometimes take its word for it when it makes recommendations. This is because the list always contains at least a couple of movies that I've already seen and liked, so even though there are also movies that I know on sight I would hate if I watched them, I'm willing to give the films I don't already have any particular opinion about a chance. Body of Lies has shown up in my recommendations a couple of times, so I thought it was time to give it a try. Though I didn't hate it, my feeling about it amounts basically to a shrug, which is arguably worse.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review: The Love Punch (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Joel Hopkins
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Emma Thompson

On the one hand, it's sort of unfortunate that a film like The Love Punch can attract such an overqualified cast; it's the sort of fluffy, unchallenging, and inconsequential movie that disappears from your memory almost as soon as you finishing watching it. On the other hand, the people who finance movies are so disinterested in films about people over "a certain age" (unless they're well over a certain age and you can put a bunch of them in a hotel together) that if you want to see actors like Emma Thompson or Pierce Brosnan in anything, you kind of have to see them in things like this. Personally, I'd rather see something with Emma Thompson in it than nothing with Emma Thompson in it, which is how I came to see The Love Punch, a proudly middle of the road movie that ends up being more entertaining than it has any right to be, given its low ambitions, but manages to coast a long way on the charms of its cast.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Barbara (2012)

Director: Christian Petzold
Starring: Nina Hoss
Country: Germany

Christian Petzold’s Barbara is a vision of restraint. Telling a story about life under the brutal terms of dictatorship, it’s a film which avoids (mostly) depictions physical violence and instead favors depictions of the quieter, arguably more insidious, psychological violence of day to day life, and the way that the denial of privacy and independence can break a person down bit by bit until it becomes unbearable. It’s a story about the desire to escape, but also about what it means to stay and what it means to want to stay. It’s a film that uncoils itself slowly, building gracefully and effectively, and which runs so deep that its ending becomes even more meaningful precisely because it is so subdued, using its final moments not to show its protagonist striking a definitive blow against the system, but merely contemplating what she has gained – and all that she’s lost in the process.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Friday's Top 5... My Most Anticipated Movies of the Rest of 2015

#5: Crimson Peak

I'm not really one for horror movies, but Guillermo del Torro's latest looks too amazing to pass up. Given that it features Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowsha, and Tom Hiddleston, chances are that it will be more than just a success of mood and aesthetic.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Review: Mistress America (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke

For a filmmaker who built a name for himself through razor sharp dissections of the anxieties, pretensions, and preoccupations of his own generation, Noah Baumbach has proved in his last couple of films that he has a keen eye for the next one, too. In fairness, in the case of Frances Ha and his latest, Mistress America, some of the credit for that must go to star Greta Gerwig, who also serves as co-writer of both, and whose presence on screen helps to soften some of Baumbach's naturally barbed edges so that the films seem more like rueful observations rather than the cinematic equivalent of an annoyed man muttering about the kids on his lawn. Mistress America isn't quite on the same level as Frances Ha, but it's a really good, really funny film with two fantastic performances at its center.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

* * * *

Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens

The Broken Circle Breakdown is a story of fragments, one which actually feels more real told in bits and pieces that jump from one time period to another than it would if it it were told in straight-forward, linear fashion, because it plays out like memories, like snatches of things remembered floating around the mind. It's a heartbreaker of a movie that deals gracefully with issues that are often treated with a heavy hand (issues like religion and spirituality, grief, and the view of the United States from outside its borders) and is possessed of an incredible rawness of emotion and extraordinary tenderness. It's a beautiful picture, and the kind with true staying power.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Netflix Recommends... I Am Legend (2007)

* * 1/2

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Will Smith

When choosing from the Netflix's recommendations, I usually pick two kinds of films: ones that I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise, or ones that I've seen in part before but never in their entirety. I Am Legend falls into the latter category, a movie that I've caught on TV a number of times but only ever the last 30 to 40 minutes. Finally seeing the film from the beginning, I had two immediate thoughts as it got underway: 1) Hey, Emma Thompson!; 2) oh hell, he had a dog at the start. This is going to be heartbreaking. And it was. Less heartbreaking and more disheartening is the fact that a film with such a generic ending turned out to have such a promising, effectively atmospheric beginning. So it goes, I guess.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard

From its opening moments, when its protagonist happily announces via voiceover that she's just lost her virginity to her mother's boyfriend, The Diary of a Teenage Girl asserts itself as a different kind of coming of age film and the proceeds to unfold with an uncommon, often provocative, frankness. For some it may actually be too frank, as it is unapologetic in its depiction of its protagonist having a lot of (ill advised) sexual experiences, but it is also an intelligent, funny, and deeply felt film about a girl struggling through a seminal, confusing, and contradictory time in her life. Like most great coming of age movies, it is also a triumph of casting and features a wonderful, defining performance at its center, in this case that of Bel Powley.