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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: Man of Steel (2013)

* * *

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe

I don't have strong feelings about Superman one way or another, so in certain respects I'm probably the ideal audience for Man of Steel. I'm not going to get hung up on whether director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer chose the "right" narrative elements from the comic to adapt to their film, and I'm not going to lose my mind over the climax (though I do think it's a shortsighted decision in terms of maintaining a franchise). I'm also not going to fixate on the high toll of destruction resulting from the fights between Superman and General Zod. I am, however, going to point out what to me is the single most objectionable thing about Man of Steel, which is the aggressive product placement. I'm not sure how much money Nikon, IHop, and Sears pumped into this production, but they were certainly rewarded with some pretty prominent signage. At this rate, it wouldn't surprise me if the forthcoming sequel is titled Pepsi Presents Superman vs Batman.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Oscar Cursed: Cuba Gooding, Jr. Edition

Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s win for Best Supporting Actor in 1996 is one of the more memorable Oscar moments of the last twenty years. While most winners attempt stoicism, Gooding gave himself over completely to the joy of the moment, reacting with a refreshingly unbridled enthusiasm. There's supposedly something undignified about openly desiring an Oscar, which is why nominees always say that they're honored to be nominated, rather than that they want desperately to win (though given the intensity of some Oscar campaigns, the "want" part doesn't really need to be said). This was the reaction of someone who wanted it and wasn't afraid to let everyone see that. It was an honest reaction but it was also, like Roberto Benigni walking over the seats the following year, a bit clownish and seems even more so when viewed through the lens of his post-Oscar career. Although he didn't have a ton of film credits before Jerry Maguire, he showed an incredible amount of promise as an actor. After Jerry Maguire, with a series of middling to terrible movies taking up space on his CV, he became kind of hard to take seriously as an actor. The Oscar curse had reared its ugly head.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Ace in the Hole (1951)

* * * *

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas

"The circus is over!" Chuck Tatum announces towards the end of Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder's most acidic picture. It's little surprise that the film was rejected when it was first released, attacking as it does the notion of journalistic integrity, not to mention the wholesomeness of American society itself, portrayed here as joyfully bloodthirsty, creating a reason to celebrate on a foundation of tragedy. It's also little surprise that eventually audiences found it, as its skill and power are undeniable. Without a single hint of sentimentality to it, Ace in the Hole remains one of the most searing American films ever made.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Footnote (2011)

* * * *

Director: Joseph Cedar
Starring: Schlomo Bar'aba, Lior Ashkenazi

The father and son at the center of Joseph Cedar's Footnote are both scholars of the Talmud, men who have read the text forwards and backwards and know its lessons, and yet, when confronted with real moral dilemmas in their own lives, have no idea how to proceed. Although it becomes a drama in its finale, for much of its running time it proceeds with the fleetness and lightness of touch of a comedy, the tonal shift occurring gradually rather than with jarring sharpness. Although its subject matter may sound impossibly specific, concerning as it does the cloistered world of academia, and maybe even boring, Footnote is anything but. It's an often delightful, sometimes moving, and highly entertaining film.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Yi Yi (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: Edward Yang
Starring: Nien-Jen Wu, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang
Country: Taiwan

A wedding, a birth, and a funeral. Common occurrences, all, and the tent poles around which Edward Yang hangs Yi Yi, a thoughtful and moving portrait of an ordinary family struggling against the changing tides of life itself. The setting of the film is Taiwan, but the story is so universal that it could be about any family anywhere in the world, and with its complex, beautifully realized characters whose disappointment, longing, and hope are easily accessible and relatable, it proves that the absolutely ordinary can be completely captivating in the right hands. Yi Yi may be a quiet film, but it’s a quiet masterpiece.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Partners in Crime: Anderson and Hoffman

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations

Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman may not come as immediately to mind when thinking of successful director/actor partnerships as other pairings, but just because they've flown slightly under the radar (a result, perhaps, of two of their early efforts being very much "ensemble" pieces) doesn't mean that their work together hasn't been vitally important. With Anderson, Hoffman has enjoyed a series of diverse and interesting characters, and with Hoffman, Anderson has had the benefit of a consistently great character actor who can work across genres. Theirs may be a quieter, less flashy partnership than other director/actor pairings, but it's one of modern cinema's most fruitful.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Netflix Recommends... Please Give (2010)

* * * 1/2

Director: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt

Netflix's top recommendations for me are getting better, although they still feel a bit random. This time my choices included Alpha Dog, Battle: Los Angeles, Omar Killed Me, The Lookout, Hoffa, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Jack Reacher and Please Give. Having recently enjoyed Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said, and having been meaning to check out Please Give for some time now, that ended up being my selection and it turned out to be a pretty good one. Alternately darkly funny and heartbreakingly sad, Holofcener's meditation on death and guilt is a sharp and incisive character study - even if those characters aren't always people you might want to study.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Girl Most Likely (2013)

* 1/2

Director: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
Starring: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening

Girl Most Likely to... what, exactly? Certainly not to be the protagonist of a movie that carries itself like its screenplay has been through more than one draft. I'm not sure how so many talented people ended up joining forces for such a bizarre mess of a movie, but here it is. If you're thinking of checking this one out, I highly recommend just watching the trailer because all the funny jokes are there and you get them without having to suffer through the nonsensical and shapeless plot, which is less a cohesive narrative than it is a series of ideas for potentially funny scenarios that never really develop into anything.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

* * * *

Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender

Whether its the story of IRA hunger strikers in the 1980s, a sex addict in the present day, or a man kidnapped and kept in slavery in the 1840s, director Steve McQueen has a way of telling stories in an unvarnished and largely unsentimental way, laying bare the unique brutality of each individual situation in a direct and unflinching fashion. This method worked to brilliant effect with Hunger, but rendered Shame just a touch too cold and clinical, and where 12 Years a Slave is concerned it falls somewhere in between (though it leans towards the Hunger end of the scale). This is a hard film, full of horrific events and evil in many guises, but although excellent overall it is also, at times, oddly bereft of passion. It's still one of the best (if not the best) films dealing the subject of slavery that I've ever seen, but its excess of formality and arm's length treatment of its subject does sometimes make for a film that favors the intellectual at the expense of the emotional.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Oscar Cursed: Reese Witherspoon Edition

Reese Witherspoon used to be a really interesting actress. You might not know that if you judged her career solely on her post-Oscar film output, but she used to make some fairly daring choices. Yes, the seeds for her career slump were sown before she won Best Actress for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line (a role which, arguably, is more supporting than it is lead), but even though she tended towards some highly commercial and homogenously Hollywood fare, she was still trying to balance things out with smaller, less commercial movies and in her "teen" phase she tended towards offbeat roles rather than more typical teen fare. And then she won an Oscar and the interesting movies ceased, but the commercial success (for the most part) of her "Hollywood movies" disappeared as well.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: Contagion (2011)

* * *

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Gwyneth Paltrow

Steven Soderbergh's Contagion is a frightening film - not because of the virus that sweeps across the planet, seemingly unstoppable, but because of how it portrays society as little more than a thin veneer easily dismantled in a few quick steps. The almost apocalyptic vision of chaos and destruction that ensues when desperation and greed set in as a population becomes increasingly distrustful of the government's ability and desire to help them, is thought-provoking and skillfully rendered. While the film as a whole is not quite as strong as this particular element, it is ultimately an effective thriller, well-crafted and excellently acted by a cast packed with great actors.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

21st Century Essentials: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson
Country: USA

Worlds within worlds within worlds. A life is comprised not just of experiences, but of how the mind filters, understands, organizes and relates those experiences. Because of that, a life cannot be understood in simple terms; an event is not just an event, but something defined by multiple layers of meaning, some of which remain hidden. Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut Synecdoche, New York is a film of almost unfathomable ambition, one rich with ideas about the relationship between the mind and reality, which starts as a story of the interior and then just keeps burrowing deeper and deeper until finally turning itself inside out. It’s a film which demands multiple viewings and which can, perhaps, never be fully unpacked – but it’s well worth a try.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Netflix Recommends... Miller's Crossing (1990)

* * * 1/2

Director: Joel Coen
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney

Third time's the charm, I guess. This time Nextflix's Top 10 recommendations only included 3 films, one of which I'd already seen and enjoyed (The Men Who Stare At Goats), one I'd never heard of (Freedomland), and one that's been on my list of films to see for a while, but which I hadn't gotten to yet (Miller's Crossing). So I chose Miller's Crossing, which I've somehow managed to never see despite being a huge Coen brothers fan, and it proved to be a much more satisfactory choice than my previous Netflix Recommends selections. A lyrical gangster movie/period piece with touches of humor mixed in with darkness, Miller's Crossing is everything you expect from a Coen brothers drama.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Greenberg (2010)

* * *

Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig

Some matches are made in heaven, others are made... much closer to earth, less a result of cosmic alignment than deciding that it's time to settle, if only temporarily. Although writer/director Noah Baumbach would probably describe it differently, I would summarize Greenberg thusly: a mentally fragile narcissist spends an hour and a half screwing with the head of a somewhat spacey but perfectly nice young woman until both are just so exhausted that they decide that the other will do, at least for now. This isn't a love story - it's too messy, too cringe-inducingly human. Baumbach excels in cinema of the uncomfortable, in characters who behave so badly that you want to look away, but so believably that you feel compelled to keep watching. Greenberg isn't great Baumbach, but it's definitely good Baumbach.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hollywood Book Club: Down and Dirty Pictures

Although I quite enjoyed Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, one of the criticisms I had of it was that it drifted a little too far into gossipy territory, devoting more time than necessary to the bed-hopping that accompanied the filmmaking of Hollywood's brief auteur era. His follow-up book, Down and Dirty Pictures, does not expend a lot of time going into the romantic ins and outs of its sprawling cast of characters, which is to its credit, but it is lacking in something that made Easy Riders so successful: the advantage of hindsight. Easy Riders was written well over a decade after the end of the era it explored, while Down and Dirty Pictures tells a story that isn't quite finished yet, which makes parts of it - particularly the somewhat gleeful tone charting Harvey Weinstein's fall from grace - seem a bit shortsighted.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Friday's Top 5... Vegas Comedies

#5: Viva Las Vegas

Can you even think of Las Vegas without that song coming into your head? Considered by some to be Elvis' best movie, it hasn't had quite the staying power of the song, which remains ubiquitous, but it remains a classic of its genre.