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Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: The Lost City of Z (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: James Gray
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller

To obsess over something for years, to work so hard, to be so close and find that it is just beyond your reach - it would be enough to drive a person mad. The Lost City of Z, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann and centering on Percy Fawcett's search for a lost civilization in the Amazon jungle, does not treat Fawcett as though it thinks he was mad for continuously returning to the jungle, but makes a fairly compelling case for how he might have been driven mad by everything outside of the jungle. The film features touches that are reminiscent of such films as Apocalypse Now, Fitzcarraldo, and, especially, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, all films that know madness well, and reunites writer/director James Gray with cinematographer Darius Khondji after 2014's The Immigrant. Mesmerizing and often soulful, The Lost City of Z is a beautiful and bewitching story about one man's unconquerable desire to know the unknown.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

21st Century Essentials: Frances Ha (2013)

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Greta Gerwig
Country: United States

Frances Ha might well be subtitled “A Woman in Transition.” It’s a story all about a period in the life of its protagonist when everything is up in the air: her professional artistic ambitions have stalled and she’s facing the possibility of having to give up her dream in order to support herself; her living situation is in a constant state of flux and she shuffles from one home to the next; and her most important relationship – the one she has with her best friend – appears to be failing, though she doesn’t understand why. At 86 minutes, it might sound like a slight piece of work, but it’s slight in running time only. A finely attuned character piece, Frances Ha is so brilliant and charming that it even manages to use to its advantage all the “New York hipster” trappings that, in a lesser movie, would be too annoying to overcome.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Crazy Lady Movies

#5: The Roommate

The Roommate is not a good movie, but it is a hilarious watch if you're with the right people. Full points to Leighton Meester for her total commitment to playing a college girl who becomes obsessed with her roommate.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Review: The Fate of the Furious

* * 1/2

Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, Jason Statham

Even when grading on the generous curve you have to allow for the movies from the Fast and Furious series, which aim for nothing more than the simplest entertainment and the most instant of gratifications, the latest entry is just a bit of a disappointment. The Fate of the Furious (how is it not called The F8 of the Furious? Was that too obvious even for this series?) is an over-stuffed entry in a series that was already pretty well-stuffed and which pretty thoroughly disappears up itself by playing around with its mythology rather than continuing to build it out - to say nothing of the fact that its villain is such a non-entity that it almost seems like Charlize Theron just popped by over a weekend to film some scenes for the hell of it. But, still, it's about the action, right? The action is pretty good, though it leaves you wondering where, if each entry in the series is to have bigger action than the last, the series has left to go with the two (at least) films it has planned for the future.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: Passengers (2016)

* * *

Director: Morton Tyldum
Starring: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence

Passengers has a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 41 rating on Metacritic. Is it secretly a great movie? No, but is it the terrible movie that those ratings would imply? Not nearly. Those ratings would suggest something borderline incompetent, something shoddily made with little to recommend it. But Passengers is an entertaining movie with more than enough to make it worth taking the time to watch, even if it is thematically problematic. Thinking about it afterwards, I was reminded of something I once read about Jerry Maguire (I can't remember the exact wording and couldn't find the review, so I'm stuck paraphrasing), that it's a movie that knows a great deal about sports but very little about relationships. Similarly, Passengers is a film that knows a great deal about how to spin an adventure yarn, but very little about women and relationships. It suffered for the latter, but it deserves praise for the former.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Netflix Recommends... Basic (2003)

* 1/2

Director: John McTiernan
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen

I'll give Basic this much: it lives up to its title. It's so basic that it appears not to have been developed beyond its very ideas for the plot and the characters, let alone beyond the first draft of the screenplay. Basic is the cinematic equivalent of a kid who gets to school and realizes that he has a project due, so he throws something together in the five minutes before the bell rings just to have something to hand in. It's bad. It's not even bad in the "so bad, it's entertaining" way. It's bad in the "so bad it's a total waste of time" way. But thanks to the new algorithm launched by Netflix, it was recommended for me with an 90% match - which isn't to say that Netflix hasn't always recommended bad movies for me, it's just that it used to recommend movies even as it acknowledged that it didn't think I would rate them highly. Anyway, on with the show:

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Personal Shopper (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Kristen Stewart

It's far too early in the year to say whether Personal Shopper will end up on my list of the year's best, but I feel like I can confidently say that it's going to be one of the films I feel compelled to revisit later in the year, possibly more than once. It's a film that engrosses and fascinates and maybe frustrates just a little bit thanks to writer/director Olivier Assayas' refusal to play by movie rules as we know them and thanks to the questions which linger afterwards like a spirit determined to make its presence known. The film re-teams Assayas with Kristen Stewart after Clouds of Sils Maria and if anything it's even more enigmatic than that film and makes even better use of Stewart's skill set as a performer, leveraging that tranquility that sometimes plays like flatness by shaking it up so that even something as simple as the little blue bubble of a text message on a phone screen takes on a world of meaning and tension just because of how close it pushes her to the edge. Personal Shopper is the definition of a film that does a lot with a little.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review: Five Came Back (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Laurent Bouzereau

I'm not sure if Five Came Back qualifies as a proper film, since Netflix is selling it as a series and it's split into distinct episodes, but I figure if a 10 part ESPN series can win the Best Documentary Oscar, then surely definitions are fluid enough that this story about five of old Hollywood's great directors putting their careers on hold in order to document WWII qualifies as a film. Adapted from Mark Harris' book of the same name (which is very much worth the read, whether you're a film buff or not), Five Came Back is an often affecting look at how the experience of the war had a lasting impact on the directors - Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston - not just as men, but as filmmakers whose careers and work would be markedly changed. Running at just a little over 3 hours, Five Came Back isn't as comprehensive as a film as it is as a book, but it's nevertheless a moving and engrossing piece of work.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

21st Century Essentials: House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Ziyi
Country: China/Hong Kong

Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is the kind of cinematic feast that Hollywood used to churn out with semi-regularity but seems to have become disinterested in of late. Fortunately for viewers there are filmmakers working outside of Hollywood, like Zhang, who are there to pick up the slack and are still interested in making films with sumptuous production elements, epic narratives full of grand adventure, and with just a bit of romance. On a purely superficial level, House of Flying Daggers is a bold, visual masterpiece that truly goes for broke in its costumes, production design, and its cinematography. On a deeper narrative level, it’s a film that perfectly balances character work with ambitious action setpieces. An instant classic of its kind on its release in 2004, it remains one of the most beguiling and engaging films of the century so far.