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Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Holidays That Garry Marshall Should Tackle Next

#5: St. Patrick's Day

Premise: Set in Boston (I mean, duh), and featuring several interlocking threads about people at, and trying to get to, the St. Patrick's Day parade.

Starring: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, with cameos from Julianne Moore, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ten Years Later... United 93 (2006)

Director: Paul Greengrass

I genuinely can't fathom how anyone managed to make it through United 93 in a theater in 2006. I could barely do it at home in 2016, a decade and a half removed from the events depicted. Films dramatize real-life tragedies all the time, sometimes at a far historical remove, sometimes not, and they can be moving without necessarily being devastating. Whether it's because of the intimate way that it's filmed, the sense of dread and helplessness that permeates every frame, or the way that it subverts (as it must) every convention cinema has trained us to anticipate, United 93 is a movie that tears you up as you watch it. It's a great film, without question, but it's great in a way that's almost unbearable, putting it in the class of films that are so effective that you're grateful to have seen it, but hope to never see it again.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

* * * *

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel

At 157 minutes, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia that can't be accused of not taking its time. It's a crime procedural, but not in the way of a thriller where the investigative team is constantly running from one lead to another, working against the clock to catch a bad guy who is always one step ahead until the final showdown when he's finally brought to justice (or death). Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a crime procedural in a slow, methodical way, one which is not so much about the crime, which is solved before the film even begins and its perpetrators arrested, but about the effect that the process of gathering the evidence has on those tasked with doing it over the course of a very long night. The length and pace of the film might seem daunting at first glance (which could also be said of Ceylan's most recent film, 2014's Palme d'Or winning Winter Sleep), but watching it becomes a completely absorbing experience very quickly.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Review: Pride (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Matthew Warchus
Starring: Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine

Politics make strange bedfellows - or, maybe it just seems that way because we don't give people enough credit for their capacity to recognize the humanity in others. Based on a true story, Pride is about the alliance between striking miners and gay rights activists in Thatcher's England. As a film, it's right in line with other feel good movies out of the UK centering on working class people rallying in the wake of economic devastation, films like The Full Monty and Billy Elliot. As with all true stories, you have to take it with something of a grain of salt, but the film is so good-hearted, and just so good, that the inclination is to give it a break whenever it might be bending the truth in service of its story. A very funny, but also deeply felt movie, Pride, which managed to snag a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy in 2015 but only managed to gross a little more than $7 million worldwide, is one of the hidden gems of recent years.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

21st Century Essentials: The Act of Killing (2013)

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Country: Norway/Denmark/United Kingdom

If you’ve ever doubted the power of art, The Act of Killing is a movie that you need to see. A documentary about the 1965-66 anti-Communist purge in Indonesia, the film does something rather extraordinary in that it at once shows film as a distancing medium which allows the perpetrators of atrocity to openly discuss their crimes by dressing them up as “scenes,” and as a medium of emotional immediacy, participating in which forces at least one of the murderers to finally reckon with the things that he’s done and be overcome with revulsion. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and a contributor who has remained anonymous for fear of retribution by the Indonesian government (which says it all, really, about the country’s relationship with this part of its history), The Act of Killing is one of the most haunting documentaries you’ll ever see.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: Anomalisa (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

I suppose it isn't saying much to say that Anomalisa is the most straightforward movie to come from writer/director Charlie Kaufman. Known for his brilliantly bizarre, mind-bending works, Kaufman doesn't typically deal in simple premises or simple execution. Anomalisa does not tell a complicated story that necessitates folding the narrative around itself or finding a way to demonstrate multiple levels of consciousness meeting each other and coming into conflict; it's the uncomplicated story of a man battling loneliness and depression who comes to believe that he's been saved from what ails him by a chance encounter. It's totals at a brisk 90 minutes, as it likely must, having been created with puppets and stop-motion animation. It's animated, but definitely not for kids, featuring as it does some very adult themes and a puppet sex scene which, even if you know it's going to happen, may still shock you with how explicit and bracingly realistic it is.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Netflix Recommends... About Last Night (2014)

* * 1/2

Director: Steve Pink
Starring: Michael Ealy, Joy Bryant, Kevin Hart, Regina Hall

It's sort of hard to reconcile how a movie that is only cynical and hard-edged in the most sanitized and palatable way (not to mention only sporadically clever) has its roots in a play by David Mamet. About Last Night is David Mamet with all the David Mamet excised, which is sort of surprising given that the film was adapted by Leslye Headland, writer/director of Bachelorette, a vicious little comedy from 2012. That said, About Last Night isn't a bad movie. It's not great, either, it's just sort of your average romantic comedy with a pair of pleasant but bland leads, each of whom has a colorful sidekick to keep things interesting and the energy up. It isn't ground breaking stuff (unless you consider a film with an all black cast groundbreaking, which, considering the current climate, maybe it is), but it's pretty okay.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review: Russian Ark (2002)

* * * 1/2

Director: Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is something of an anomaly when it comes to great movies in that it's a great technical achievement without being a particularly impressive narrative achievement. Due to the circumstances in which it came to be, it's a much more interesting movie for how it was made than it is for the actual story unfolding on screen, which means that a "making of" documentary (which does exist, though I haven't seen it) has a chance of being more riveting than the film itself because it tells a more interesting tale. Yet, Russian Ark really is an impressive feat, accomplishing something that seems like it would be impossible, so even if it is fascinating more for its mechanics than for its actual product, it's still a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: The Salvation (2014)

* * *

Director: Kristian Levring
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

The frontier was the dividing line between civilization and lawlessness, a place where only the strong could survive, and where good men might have no choice but to become bad. Kristian Levring's western The Salvation might instead have been called "The Descent," centering as it does on a man trying to build a life in the middle of a dusty nowhere who loses everything and then goes on a mission of bloody vengeance. Even if genre tropes didn't exist, you might guess at his success simply by the fact that he's played by the formidable Mads Mikkelsen. The Salvation may not be a great western, sticking as it does to some pretty by the books plotting, but it's a decently entertaining one regardless of how many cliches it relies on and it fits in nicely with the kinds of B-movies that once made up the bulk of the American cinema landscape.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: This Must Be The Place (2011)

* * *

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Sean Penn

Where to begin discussing This Must Be The Place? It's an odd little bird of a film, one which courts the bizarre so openly that it should be annoying, one which takes such a hard left turn between its first and second acts that the whole thing ought to come apart in front of your eyes, one anchored by a performance that seems at first like it will be too mannered to be compelling. A movie like this shouldn't work, it has so many potential liabilities, but it's actually pretty delightful. I knew almost nothing about it before watching it and as it started, I experienced a slight sinking feeling, as the protagonist seemed tailor-made for Johnny Depp (and not necessarily in a good way) but on a Sean Penn budget. Very quickly, however, the film won me over - and that's despite the fact that, objectively, I'm not totally convinced that it actually works as a story.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: The Boss (2016)

* *

Director: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy

I'll admit it, I'm something of a Melissa McCarthy apologist. I find the most consistent criticism of her - that she plays the same character over and over again - to be kind of lazy as, aside from the occasional foul-mouthed tirade, I don't really see that the ruthless con artist who discovers that she's capable of actually caring about others of Identity Thief, the tough, lone wolf cop of The Heat, the woman damaged by a lifetime of disappointment of Tammy, and the hyper-capable agent hiding inside a meek and submissive persona of Spy have all that much in common. Even the way that the people who surround those characters relate to them is quite different, with Tammy inspiring people's pity at basically all turns, Mullins (of The Heat) inspiring fear of her hair-trigger temper, Susan Cooper inspiring those around her to constantly underestimate her, and Dawn Budgie (Identity Thief), inspiring wariness because she's so clearly a sociopath. I also, generally, admire McCarthy's willingness to go for broke in the interest of getting a laugh, often sacrificing all vanity to get there. That said, The Boss is far, far from her best and her collaborations with husband Ben Falcone continue to be a distant second to her collaborations with Paul Feig

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Review: Sisters (2015)

* * *

Director: Jason Moore
Starring: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler

Sisters is the kind of movie that looks like it was a lot of fun to make. It's a lot of fun to watch, too, but not as much fun as it seems like it would have been to make. It features a story which isn't particularly developed beyond its basic premise - Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are sisters - which results in a bit of narrative shagginess over the course of its 118 minutes, but the anarchic glee with which Fey and Poehler and a ton of other names from Saturday Night Live and the comedy world beyond (to name a few: Maya Rudolph, John Leguizamo, Samantha Bee, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, and Kate McKinnon) come together to play is more than enough to make it worth the price of admission. Sisters isn't as nuanced or as clever as Fey or Poehler's best work, but it's one of the most flat out funny movies I've seen in some time.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Gosford Park (2001)

Director: Robert Altman
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ryan Phillippe
Country: United Kingdom

Like most Robert Altman films, Gosford Park is a film where there's always a lot going on. There are a ton of characters and many plot threads, there are things happening in the background while other things happen in the foreground, there are things happening which aren't being directly remarked upon, and the film opens by tossing viewers into the deep end, charging forward with its story and making the audience work to catch up on who's who and how everyone is connected to each other. Like many Altman films, it's a glorious cacophony of sights and sounds, so deftly navigated by Altman and writer Julian Fellowes that it almost looks easy, though surely few filmmakers would be able to pull something like this off even half as well. Even after 15 years and 6 seasons of the film's spiritual successor, Downton Abbey, Gosford Park still feels like a breath of fresh air, a film humming with life, humor, and pathos.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Jake Gyllenhaal Performances

#5: Jarhead

Gyllenhaal's performance in Jarhead is defined by frustration. Playing a young man who joins the Marines in an effort to give his life some direction, he then finds himself deployed to fight in the Gulf War, doing nothing but waiting and expressing his boredrom through acts of hedonism, only to finally get an opportunity to actually do something and see it get snatched away. Gyllenhaal shifts easily between the character's tendencies towards both recklessness and seriousness in this portrayal of a man whose best intentions are constantly being undercut by circumstance.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Canadian Film Review: The Forbidden Room (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson
Starring: Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey

If you're already a Guy Maddin fan, then all I need to say about The Forbidden Room is that it's Guy Maddin's most recent movie and that should be all that you need to know. If you aren't a Guy Maddin fan, The Forbidden Room isn't likely to make you one, as it's perhaps the most "Guy Maddin-y" movie Maddin has ever made. If you simply haven't experienced a Guy Maddin film before, I wouldn't recommend starting with this one, which is probably his least accessible, although it is quite the sensory experience. Maddin has never been a filmmaker hemmed in by convention, but he feels particularly unleashed here, unfolding a series of narratives out of each other and more or less exploding them and blending them all together in the finale. It is a weird (often hilariously so) movie, but if you like your movies weird, this is the one for you.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review: Macbeth (2015)

* * *

Director: Justin Kurzel
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Like so many of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth has been brought to the screen so many times - most famously by Orson Welles in 1948, Akira Kurosawa in 1957 (as Throne of Blood), and Roman Polanski in 1971; shockingly neither Laurence Olivier nor Kenneth Branagh ever did a screen version - that it's difficult to image how anyone could have a fresh interpretation to offer. Justin Kurzel's Macbeth is, generally speaking, a pretty faithful adaptation, telling a story that most will know in broad strokes even if they've never read the play, not deviating too wildly from the original text (though this version amps up the violence). Kurzel's version doesn't offer any new insights into the psychology of its protagonist, but it succeeds thanks in large part to a fascinating performance by Michael Fassbender in the lead - though when a film is this visually bold, the real star is the cinematographer (in this case, Adam Arkapaw).