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Saturday, March 29, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Downfall (2004)

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: Oliver Hirshbiegel
Starring: Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz
Country: Germany/Italy/Austria

It’s a shame that, ten years on, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall is now probably best known for the Youtube meme it inspired. Not that some of those parodies weren’t kind of brilliant, but this is a powerful, superbly made film that deserves to be known for more than an isolated scene of Hitler yelling. It’s an important film about the depths of fanaticism, the terror of being on the losing side of a conflict, and the most profound kind of regret. Although Hitler figures prominently into the story, it’s not a film about Hitler, but about the kind of mindset that allows a figure like Hitler to rise to power and institute a policy of horror that can be allowed to proceed unchecked.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Biblical Epics

#5: The Prince of Egypt

For whatever reason, animated films don't often seem to come under consideration in the "epic" genre, but it would seem wrong to make a list of epic films rooted in biblical stories without including DreamWork's The Prince of Egypt. An exquisitely animated adaptation of the Book of Exodus, the film is nothing short of epic in scope and execution.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 (2014)

Volume 1 & 2: * * * 1/2

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourgh, Stellan Skarsgard

And so it concludes. After abruptly leaving the story (and its protagonist) hanging at the end of Volume 1, the story picks up in more or less the same place in Volume 2, but uses the division to take a sharp turn. Volume 1 is "Nymph," lighter in tone and lighter on its feet, concerned largely with sex as a source of pleasure, while Volume 2 is "Maniac," darker, more serious, concerned with sex as a source of violence. Together, the two pieces suggest a work in which director Lars von Trier is conversing both with himself, revisiting his past films in references both big and small, and, through the narrative's framing device, metaphorically conversing with his critics and audience. Taken together, the two volumes make for a film that is often fascinating, sometimes frustrating, but never boring.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Documentaries About Making Movies

#5: The Five Obstructions

I may be pushing it slightly with this selection, as it's not a documentary about the making of one movie, but a documentary about Lars von Trier tasking filmmaker Jorgen Leth with a series of difficult filmmaking tasks. Each film Leth has to make is, technically, the "same" film (a remake of the film The Perfect Human), but each finished product is distinct from the others.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Partners In Crime: Herzog & Kinski

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations:

The history of filmmaking is full of tempestuous actors and demanding directors, and no combination of the two has ever been as volatile as that of actor Klaus Kinski and director Werner Herzog. Kinski is best known for the gallery of mentally unbalanced characters he played, characters who seemed to mirror his own intense and unpredictable personality. Of the two, Herzog was the sane one - and Werner Herzog is friggin' crazy. He's a man who once got shot while doing an interview and then dismissed his injury as being the result of an insignificant bullet. That these two men made it through one film without killing each other is amazing; that they went on to make five, and brought out the best in each other, is miraculous.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Netflix Recommends... The East (2013)

* * 1/2

Director: Zal Batmanglij
Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson

For once Netflix's recommendations were not completely insane. In addition to usual low budget horror movies that always end up rounding out the list, the list included a bit of 90s nostalgia in the form of Nell and Courage Under Fire, the recent western Appaloosa and crime thriller Pride and Glory, and a trio of 2013 films that I'd heard mixed to good things about but hadn't gotten around to seeing yet: Prince Avalanche, Drinking Buddies and The East. Since I feel like I keep hearing about how co-writer/star Brit Marling is the "next big thing," I figured I'd check out The East so that I might develop an opinion on the subject, and I've gotta say... I remain unconvinced.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Review: Mother (2009)

* * * *

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin

There's nothing she wouldn't do for him. He's her only child, a young man whose marginal intelligence makes him vulnerable, an easy target or an easy scapegoat. When he's arrested for murder, she begins a crusade to prove his innocence. In a conventional film, that would be the story: a strong woman fighting against the odds for her child. But Bong Joon-ho's Mother isn't a conventional film, and it doesn't take the usual roads as it heads towards its ending. Solidly constructed and anchored by a tour de force performance by Kim Hye-ja, Mother is an often fascinating and always engrossing film.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Morvern Callar (2002)

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: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Samantha Morton
Country: United Kingdom

Don’t try to understand. It just seemed like the right thing to do. It’s Christmas Day and Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) has woken up to find her boyfriend dead, his suicide note typed out on the computer, giving her instructions for what to do next. He’s instructed her to send his manuscript to a publisher and use the money in his bank account to pay for his funeral, leaving it to her to finish his life for him and secure his legacy. Instead she does nothing, and then she does everything. With its long periods of silence and much shorter bursts of energy, Lynne Ramsay’s Movern Callar is, like its eponymous character, a bit bipolar, a fascinating study in restlessness and existential nihilism, and a brilliant expression of the inner life of its protagonist.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014)

Volume 1 & 2: * * * 1/2

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin

I'm not sure there's any real way to assess the first volume of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac in the absence of its second half. Unlike the Kill Bill movies or Stephen Soderbergh's Che, where one narrative is split into two complete films that are able to stand alone, Nymphomaniac is an unfinished product, so evaluating it would be sort of like evaluating a book after reading to the middle and then stopping mid-sentence, or like evaluating von Trier's Melancholia based only on the "Justine" section. Without the benefit of the second half of the story, I can only say a couple of things for certain: this is von Trier's funniest English language film, Hollywood should stop neglecting the talents of Uma Thurman, and if what Volume 1 seems to be setting up actually pans out in Volume 2 then this may turn out to be a truly excellent film.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: Night Train to Munich (1940)

* * * 1/2

Director: Carol Reed
Starring: Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Henreid

Not many films feature action set pieces involving aerial trams, which is one very good reason to see Carol Reed's WWII thriller Night Train to Munich. The other reason is that it's a zippy picture that successfully mixes thriller and comedy elements (though it's attempt at romance falls a bit flat) and proves to be a solid precursor to Reed's masterpiece The Third Man. Although parts of the film don't really hold up well in 2013, for the most part the film is a reminder of the sort of thing filmmakers used to be able to do so well, but can't often pull off these days.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Oscar Cursed... Kevin Costner Edition

You wouldn't know it from his career today, but Kevin Costner was once one of Hollywood's biggest stars. His career as an actor, once it got off the ground, saw him starring in a string of critical and commercial hits, and his directorial debut gained 12 Oscar nominations. Of those 12 nominations, 3 were for him for producing and directing (both of which he won) and for acting. While his career did not immediately decline after that - his period of success continued unabated for about 2 years after his Oscar wins - once his career crashed, it became one of the more famous falls from Hollywood grace in recent memory. How did moviegoers go from love to indifference so quickly?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

21st Century Essentials: A Separation (2011)

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: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Peyman Moaadi, Leila Hatami
Country: Iran

The beauty of Asghar Farhadi's domestic drama A Separation is the way that it begins with a relatively simple problem and then proceeds to build layer upon layer upon layer of complication onto it without ever toppling over under the weight of that plotting and without ever drifting into high melodrama. This is a story about people, none of them bad, but all of them with individual needs and desires that come into conflict with the needs and desires of the other characters. This is a very human story, one which puts the characters first and cares about telling you something about them, one which possesses a moral and emotional complexity that transcends political context to become something universal, and something great.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Wes Anderson Characters

#5: Sam & Suzy, Moonrise Kingdom

These are two characters at a tricky stage in their development, at the cusp of adolescence they aren't quite kids anymore, but they still have the innocence of kids. They're play acting a grand romantic story of star crossed lovers, but the hints of melancholy around them, the fact that they are both fundamentally lonely people who have found a kindred in each other, make the relationship dead serious.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: Jackie Brown (1997)

* * * *

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro

I love Jackie Brown. It became an instant favorite when I first saw it back in 1997 and has remained my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. Despite that, it had been a couple of years since I'd actually sat down and watched it. Sometimes in a situation like that a movie ages better in your memory than it does in actuality, but in this case Jackie Brown remains as effective and perfectly pitched as was 16 years ago. Whether this is, in fact, Tarantino's best film is probably up for debate, but I think it's certainly his most mature and grounded film - which may or may not have something to do with the fact that it's the only adaptation he's directed.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Let Me Off At The Top!

Okay, so maybe this isn't a "book," as such. "Let Me Off At The Top: My Classy Life & Other Musings," the memoir of Ron Burgundy (who frequently refers to it as a "novel," but also refers to it as a "brobalia" and "braknopod" when unable to remember the word "biography") is a movie tie-in, so you can't really judge it by the same standards as a normal book and have to give it at least a little bit of leeway. Even doing so, however, you'll come to the conclusion that the Ron Burgundy persona is best deployed through Will Ferrell rather than through the page, as the more offensive aspects of the Burgundy character are softened just enough by Ferrell's performance that it leaves no doubt of the intention behind it, whereas on the page some of it just reads as... well, offensive.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: The Square (2013)

* * * *

Director: Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujaim's The Square is a remarkable documentary for numerous reasons, not least of which is that it manages to chart the increasingly complex progress of a revolution over the course of two years. Focusing on a handful of revolutionaries as they cycle through periods of anger, hope, disappointment, and back again, the film is as much about action as it is about the durability of spirit. There are no clean victories depicted in the film - each victory or loss leads into a new battle - but the desire for change, and for voices to finally be heard, is the continuous and powerful thread that runs from one end of the film to the other. Through its use of handheld footage which sometimes depicts scenes of unspeakable brutality, The Square offers a front row seat to a revolution.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscar Winners

As they're announced:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Best Original Screenplay: Spike Jonze, Her

Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave

Best Original Song: "Let It Go," Frozen

Best Original Score: Steven Price, Gravity

Best Production Design: Catherine Martin & Beverley Dunn, The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing: Alfonso Cuaron & Mark Sanger, Gravity

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Best Sound Editing: Glenn Freemantle, Gravity

Best Sound Mixing: Gravity

Best Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty (Italy)

Best Documentary - Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom

Best Documentary - Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Live Action Short Film: Helium

Best Visual Effects: Gravity

Best Animated Feature: Frozen

Best Animated Short Film: Mr. Hublot

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Adruitha Lee and Robin Matthews, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Costume Design: Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oscar Predictions

We're less than 24 hours away from the big show, my predictions (about which I'm probably less confident than I have been in any other year of recent memory):

Picture: Gravity

Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Original Screenplay: American Hustle

Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave