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Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Oscar Longshots I'll Be Rooting For on Sunday

#5: American Hustle for Best Costume Design

I don't have any particularly strong feelings about the Costume Design category, but it would be refreshing to see the Academy recognize a film that isn't a costume drama. Since AMPAS failed to recognize American Hustle with a nomination in the Makeup and Hairstyling category, I don't expect they'll reward the film here, no matter how deserving the film may be.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: The Hunt (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen

"The world is full of evil, but if we hold on to each other, it goes away." There is evil in the world, but sometimes its in the holding on to each other, the closing of ranks against another in the name of "justice," where evil truly takes root. Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt is about a man singled out by a community eager to mete out the punishment that the criminal justice system might be too slow to satisfactorily bestow, never pausing to try to look beyond their own sense of righteousness to consider that one of the reasons that the criminal justice system can be slow is that, ideally, the right person will be charged with the right crime - if, in fact, there even is a crime. It's an intense and taut film, well constructed and emotionally engaging, even if its central conceit is built on a straw man argument.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: The Counselor (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz

It's easy to see why Ridley Scott's The Counselor landed with such a thud (both critical and commercial) when it arrived in theaters last fall. It's an aggressively inaccessible film, savagely violent in some places, thick with talk in most places. I admire the film for its confidence; mainstream films (and given its cast and its director, The Counselor qualifies as mainstream), even the good ones, usually seem like they've been put together by committee, designed to appeal to as many people as possible, but The Counselor has the courage to be its own animal and do its own thing. It's bold, it's fascinating, and it doesn't entirely work, but when it fails it does so on its own terms and there aren't a ton of movies you can say that about.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Vic and Flo Saw a Bear (2013)

* * *

Director: Denis Cote
Starring: Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-Andre Grondin

Denis Cote's Vic and Flo Saw a Bear would seem like a relaxed affair about two ex-cons struggling to pick up their lives on the outside were it not for the film's ominous musical score. The beating drums, furious and insistent, force themselves into the foreground, keeping you on edge and waiting for whatever big thing is going to happen to happen. In that respect, Vic and Flo does not disappoint - the "big thing" when it finally happens is pretty shocking, ripping the film out of a tone which at times verges on the darkly comedic, and placing it pretty firmly within the realm of brutal crime drama, and doing so without missing a beat. That's no small accomplishment, and it's only one of the things this charmingly bizarre, character-driven drama has going for it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review: Stranger by the Lake (2013)

* * * *

Director: Alain Guiraudie
Starring: Pierre de Ladonchamps, Christophe Paou

There's something almost hypnotic about Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, a brutally effective thriller about sex and death in which the intensity of the characters' abandon is matched only by the sharp precision of Guiraudie's storytelling. Sexually explicit, rigidly structured, and narrowly focused, the film may be a bridge too far for some viewers, particularly those who prefer their thrillers a little faster paced, but its level of craft can't be denied.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

* * *

Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett

Had The Monuments Men been released in December as planned I probably would have found myself massively disappointed by it, as the annual year end glut of great and would-be great movies tends to set expectations fairly high. But with the film pushed out of the prestige period and into the cinematic no-man's land that is February, accompanied by reviews that can best be described as "tepid," my expectations were naturally and appropriately lowered, and as a result I found the film rather enjoyable. That's not to say that it's without its flaws - they're there and they're fairly prominent - but I think that The Monuments Men is better than its reputation suggests.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

21st Century Essentials: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

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: Julian Schnabel
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Consigny, Marie-Josée Croze
Country: France, United States

Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a film that is at once extremely limited and infinitely open. Adapted from the book of the same name, the film dramatizes the experiences of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor of Elle who at age 43 suffered a stroke that left his entire body paralyzed save for one eye. Having learned to communicate by blinking, he went on to dictate his book, but died just 10 days after its publication. His story is inherently tragic but, at the same time, and in Schnabel’s assured hands, it is also a story of singular triumph, and the film itself is pure poetry.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Partners in Crime: Fellini & Masina

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations:

Fewer cinematic partnerships have been more enduring, or more fruitful, than that of husband and wife duo Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina. So defining, in fact, is Fellini to Masina's screen career that his influence is absent in only eight of her nineteen films - in addition to the seven films in which he directed her, he's credited as a writer in four others. Although Fellini worked with many actors to great success, none of those collaborations could match that of his work with Masina, which helped establish him as one of the most important filmmakers of the 20th century.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Enemy (2014)

* *

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Melanie Laurent

The best thing I can say about Denis Villeneuve's Enemy is that at least it tries something, and an interesting failure is pretty much always more worthy of discussion than a conventional success. Adapted from the Jose Saramago novel The Double, the film focuses so heavily on the visual aspects of its storytelling that it doesn't seem to notice how undercooked its narrative is. Although it possesses some strengths, including a solid performance by Jake Gyllenhaal in the dual roles of identical strangers, the film never develops the requisite sense of urgency that its story requires, making for a sleepy and somewhat lifeless thriller.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: The Selfish Giant (2013)

* * * *

Director: Clio Barnard
Starring: Conner Chapman, Shaun Thomas, Sean Gilder

Movies don't come much bleaker than Clio Barnard's The Selfish Giant, in which the forever overcast sky perfectly exemplifies the rut the characters are stuck in. Fenced in by poverty and lack of means for upward mobility, the two kids at the center of the story have futures that can probably be best described as "limited," futures comprised of households that exceed in size the financial and other resources available, futures marked by drug abuse and violence - futures, in other words, that will be exactly like their present except that they'll be adults instead of children. That The Selfish Giant is so engaging and so often funny anyway is nothing short of a minor miracle.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus (2013)

* * *

Director: Sebastian Silva
Starring: Michael Cera, Gabby Hoffmann

Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus is the type of film where pretty much everything you need to know about it is right there in the title. It's a film as loosey goosey as the title suggests, a title which names the two extremes in the protagonist's life during this small window of time. The first is Crystal Fairy, a woman who quickly establishes herself as the bane of his existence, and the second is the San Pedro cactus which becomes his reason for being, the centerpiece of his grand Chilean adventure. On the one hand, Crystal Fairy is a silly movie about a small group of people on a quest to take a drug trip, but on the other hand, it's a pretty solid character study which explores the figure of the "ugly American" abroad in ways which are both broad and subtle.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances

#5: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

A crime drama centering on an enormously dysfunctional family, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead finds Hoffman playing the ruthless, bullying elder brother to Ethan Hawke and absolutely dominating the film from one end to the other. Although the character is pretty cold blooded - his scheming essentially tears apart his entire family - Hoffman mixes enough humanity and desperation into his portrayal to make the character far more than just a monster of greed and hubris.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Netflix Recommends... The Canyons (2013)


Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen

Netflix, I think we need to have a talk. What, exactly, is the thought process behind what you deem your top picks for me? Some recommendations you give me the courtesy of explaining - because I watched Pan's Labyrinth, you think I'll like The Mist; because I watched A History of Violence, you think Righteous Kill might do it for me; and because I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Donnie Darko, you think that The Number 23 might be my jam - and then sometimes you just pop movies into the list at random without any explanation at all and, in the case of The Canyons, when your best guess for how I'll rate it is "1.5 stars." Why would you recommend something to me if you think I'll only give it 1.5 stars? That's like saying, "Hey, you know what I think you'll like? This thing you're gonna hate." I mean, yeah, I watched it, but mostly because I was curious about how thoroughly you were messing with me - it says it thinks I'll give it 1.5 stars, but maybe it's just being coy and it thinks I'll actually love The Canyons, but need to be tricked into watching it. But, no. 1.5 stars would actually be generous; this movie is straight up terrible.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Oscar Cursed: Susan Sarandon Edition

Oh, don't think it doesn't hurt me to say so. Susan Sarandon is awesome. She's an actress who has been well-praised and yet still somehow seems just a bit underrated, at least lately. She was never a huge box office draw, but if you look through her filmmography, there are a lot of really interesting films and choices there, some purely "prestige," some fairly commercial, but there's a wide variety of character types and film genres, and a ton of praise worthy performances. The early 90s seem to have been the sweet spot in Sarandon's career, a period in which she earned four of her five Oscar nominations and her one win, at which point the really interesting roles seem to have dried up, leaving her with nothing to play but wives and mothers. Come on, Hollywood. We all deserve better than for Susan Sarandon to be playing the sorts of parts that any actress "of a certain age" could play.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: A Hijacking (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Soren Malling, Pilou Asbaek

Tobias Lindholm's A Hijacking is like the yin to Captain Phillips' yang. Where the latter is a white knuckle thriller which centers the action on the hijacked boat and shows the situation coming to a (relatively) swift, if not peaceful, end, the former is more slow going, putting the bulk of its action in the boardroom where negotiations are undertaken while the situation on the boat drags out for days and the weeks and then months. While the two films are wildly different animals, both are compelling and haunting pictures in which men struggle for power and find themselves broken by trauma.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

21st Century Essentials: The Hurt Locker (2009)

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: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
Country: USA

The Hurt Locker stands apart from other movies about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq precisely because it isn't really a war movie, but a film that is part thriller, part character study. It works not because it taps into a sense of righteousness or moral authority, but because it removes itself from the political aspect of the war on terror, eschewing speeches about "why we're here" or "why we shouldn't be here" and instead focusing on the simple fact that its characters are there and that they have a job to do. It's about the ordinariness of life and death in a warzone, about the waiting for something to happen, the anticipation that an already tense situation will escalate, and the psychological toll on regular soldiers. It's a story about three men on the ground, two of whom want to do their tours and get home safely, one of whom pushes further and further, forever itching to get away from home. It's the small scale of the film, it's preoccupation with character rather than politics, which makes it resonate and which has allowed it to remain relevant where others have become diminished with hindsight and changing political sentiment.