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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: Enough Said (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini

Enough Said is a film where people say too much to the wrong people and not enough to the right people, where communication continuously fails despite the amount of talking the characters do. It's a romantic comedy with a few dramatic turns, at times laugh out loud funny, but also poignant and touching. While many comedies fail because their plots force their characters to behave as no real human beings would, there's a ring of truth to Holofcener's characters and the way they interact, even when the plot construction starts to force itself in on them. Although earlier this year the Hollywood Reporter declared the romantic comedy dead, this utterly charming and delightful film proves there's still some life left in the genre.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Oscar Cursed: Adrian Brody Edition

Speaking broadly, the "Oscar curse" tends to affect actors less often than actresses, which I think is likely correlated to the fact that the actress categories tend to skew younger, while the actor categories tend to go older. The average age of Best Actress winners is 35, and bear in mind that that number is arrived at by including Jessica Tandy, who won at 80, and Katherine Hepburn, who won three times after turning 60. Of the 86 winners for Best Actress, 30 of them have been under the age of 30 at the time of their win. By contrast, the average age of Best Actor winners is 44 and only one actor has been under the age of 30 when he won. On average, the winners of Best Actor have had longer to establish themselves before winning and that foundation, in conjunction with the fact that Hollywood tends to value middle aged actors (where it usually disavows knowledge of an actress once she hits middle age), makes Best Actor winners a little less likely to find their careers going over the cliff after winning an Oscar. But that one actor who was under 30 when he won? Yeah, that was Adrien Brody.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: All Is Lost (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: J. C. Chandor
Starring: Robert Redford

Late in All Is Lost Robert Redford's unnamed protagonist looks up to the heavens and screams the word, "Fuck." He holds out a lot longer than I would have. If the character was based on me, there would be a lot more dialogue because there would be a steady stream of expletives from beginning to end. J. C. Chandor's stark, straightforward tale can be summed up in seven words: "A man struggles to survive at sea." That's pretty much the entirety of the movie, which features only one character, next to no dialogue, and a series of escalating crises that make survival seem increasingly hopeless. In lesser hands this would feel gimmicky, but Chandor's deft execution and Redford's riveting performance make it work.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Netflix Recommends... Rendition (2007)

* 1/2

Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep

This time my Top 10 recommendations included the following movies: Get the Gringo, Listen to Your Heart, Rendition, Retreat and Down Periscope. I went with Rendition, a film featuring a trio of talented actors, and which I vaguely remembered as one of several "war on terror" themed prestige films to come out in 2007 without making much in the way of a lasting impact (the other films were Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, and Charlie Wilson's War). Having now seen it, I understand why it didn't make much of an impact. This is a film that presents as a work of political import which aims to hold the US government accountable for dangerous and ugly policies, but which, on close inspection, does quite a bit to uphold the values which it supposedly abhors.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Late Marriage (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: Dover Kosashvili
Starring: Lior Ashkenazi, Ronit Elkabetz
Country: Israel

Sooner or later, everyone needs to grow up. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that they have to conform to their parents’ expectations of them, but they need to grow up enough to stand up to those expectations. Late Marriage is about a man who grows up, but only in a superficial way. He does what he’s expected to do – what tradition demands – but at the cost of his happiness, which means that he will forever be a resentful human being, stuck in a form of perpetual adolescence where major life decisions are still being made for him by others. Dover Kosashvili’s Late Marriage is a sometimes funny, occasionally horrifying, and completely enduring film about the power of tradition, the intensity of expectation, and the limits of love.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Ridley Scott Films

#5: The Duellists (1977)

You've gotta give it up for the debut, particularly when the debut is as strong as this one. The story of two members of Napoleon's army who spend years (long stretches of which are broken up by their participation in war) engaging in a series of duels. It's a great historical drama, not to mention a psychological character study.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

* * * *

Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

With razor sharp precision, and an absence of proselytizing, director Paul Greengrass dramatizes the politically charged events of 2009, in which four Somali pirates hijacked the American container ship Maersk Alabama, an incident brought to a close with the intervention of the Navy SEALs and the deaths of three of the pirates. Although a story like that could easily be reduced to an "Us vs. Them" type narrative, the film is a lot less interested in taking sides than it is in exploring the mechanics of the event in all its intensity. Captain Phillips is one of the most engrossing films of the year, a gripping thriller with two marvelous performances at its center. This is absolutely a must see.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Netflix Recommends... Colombiana (2011)

* *

Director: Olivier Megaton
Starring: Zoe Saldana

The Netflix algorithms are curious things. After reviewing my viewing choices for the last two months, I'm convinced that their "Top 10" recommendations are chosen entirely at random and with no regard for who they're being recommended to. My own top 10 contained the following 8 movies (2 of the selections were TV shows): Colombiana, Green Lantern, The Next Three Days, Ironclad, Battle: Los Angeles, Predators, Retreat and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (one of these things is not like the others). Of those choices, 2011's Colombiana seemed the least objectionable, and that's how I ended up spending a couple of hours watching this profoundly silly revenge flick. Star Zoe Saldana certainly has the charisma to carry a movie - maybe next time the movie will help her out a little bit.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: Now You See Me (2013)

* * *
Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Morgan Freeman, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fischer, Melanie Laurent, Michael Caine

Now You See Me is a good film saddled with a bad film's ending. Right up until its finale, it is an entertaining and engaging caper movie, and then it uses the goodwill engendered by its first two thirds as leverage against the cheap trick it pulls at the end. When a film's twist ending requires the audience to completely disregard everything they've learned about a character, to ignore the way that character behaved even when he or she was alone and had no one (except the audience) to keep up appearances for, it's not clever. It's cheating. A good twist is one which not only makes sense according to the film's internal logic, but which inspires multiple viewings so that you can pick up on all the little hints and bits of foreshadowing leading to the revelation. A bad twist is one which exists solely for the shock value that comes with the first viewing and which, on subsequent viewings, just makes everything leading up to the twist seem dumb. The ending of this film is garbage; the rest of the film is pretty good... so I guess I'm recommending the first 100 minutes and warning against the last 15.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Partners in Crime: Scorsese and De Niro

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations

For the modern filmgoer there are few director/actor collaborations that have been as fruitful as that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Almost twenty years after their last film together, their collaboration remains an example against which other director/actor pairings are measured due to the richness and quality of the films they produced together. While many of their films together explore similar themes and milieus, the key to the Scorsese/De Niro pairing is that each one explores different aspects of those themes and milieus, and while De Niro has played a number of, lets say, psychologically challenged characters for Scorsese, each one has been crazy in his own particular way.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Children of Men (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: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Clive Owen
Country: United Kingdom

Stories about dystopias always begin from a place of despair, a despair that is set in and normalized but not, as it turns out, completely devoid of hope. Children of Men, on the other hand, begins from a place of utter, inescapable hopelessness, set in a world where humanity has seen its last generation and knows that the end is inevitable. If humans cannot reproduce, then it doesn't matter whether or not evil and corrupt systems are overthrown because, no matter what, extinction is fast approaching. There's nothing ahead except the final descent into violence and chaos and those people who still live in "stable" nations look on blankly while the government becomes increasingly militarized, increasingly brutal, and the last vestiges of humanity slaughter each other. It's a bleak vision brought painfully, frighteningly to life in one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, by a director who is proving himself to be one of the most vital and important filmmakers working today.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Shakespeare Adaptations

#5: Titus (1999)

Opinions on this one vary (and wildly, at that), but I think Julie Taymor's adaptation of Titus Andronicus is one of the most audacious and interesting Shakespeare adaptations ever made. It's a film that is alternately brutal and beautiful, borrowing liberally from various eras of history so that it's not really fixed in any one time period. It's a deeply weird movie, but that's part of what makes it so good.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review: Gravity (2013)

* * * *

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

I don't like 3D. I've said so before and I'm saying it again, and the reason I don't like it is because 99% of the films released in that format have absolutely no business being 3D, their sole purpose in using the technology being to pad box office receipts. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is a film that belongs in the 1%, a masterwork that uses the technology as it should be used, creating new cinematic vistas and giving the audience something it's never seen before. But the film is not just a technological achievement. It has a strong, well-told story, great performances, and thematic depth that will make it compelling in 2D as well but, man, do yourself a favor and see it at least once in 3D.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Nicholas Ray - The Glorious Failure of an American Director

Was he an under appreciated genius betrayed by the Hollywood system, or was he a talented but over praised artist who made two bad films for every good film and sabotaged his career at every turn? If you listen to the French (Godard famously said, "The cinema is Nicholas Ray"), you'll come away thinking its the former, but Patrick McGilligan's biography will leave you leaning towards the latter. Though the book can be a bit dry and gets a repetitive towards the end, when the director's demons really start to take over, it is also a meticulous accounting of not just how Ray made his films, but the filmmaking process in Hollywood in the 1950s - with all its frustrating backstage politics - in general.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Movies Set in Outer Space

#5: Apollo 13

The true story of how a mission to the moon became a mission to return three astronauts to earth alive is, to my mind, Ron Howard's best movie and the only one that has transcended the line between "pretty good" and "kind of great."

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Oscar Cursed: Michael Cimino Edition

It happens to directors, too. Top of the world, and anointed by the Hollywood establishment one day, and then forgotten and making straight to video shlock the next. Sometimes the success was a fluke in the first place, sometimes the talent is there but the ego grows too large and the work becomes weighted down by the director's hubris. Michael Cimino's rise to prominence was swift - a couple of writing credits, followed by a critically and commercially popular debut, followed by an Oscar winning classic - but his fall as even sharper. His failure, arguably, had a greater impact than his success, seeing as it not only derailed his career, but also helped usher in a quick end to the auteur era of American cinema, changing the course of Hollywood movie making for the next decade.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: 20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

* * *

Director: Morgan Neville

It takes more than talent to make a star. There are a host of factors that come into play, including, but not limited to, the artist's drive and ambition, their ability to endure sometimes volatile shifts in the pop culture landscape, their ability to market themselves or be marketed by third parties, and, though Morgan Neville's 20 Feet from Stardom isn't too preoccupied with it, racism. It's no coincidence that the majority of the women showcased here, all talented singers, many of whom tried to break out as solo singers but, for various reasons, found themselves relegated to the background, are women of color. Though 20 Feet is an engaging and entertaining film, one of the frustrating things about it is how often it acknowledges issues such as racism only to shy away from a deeper exploration of it. I would recommend it nevertheless, but I don't really think that it's all it could be.