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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Western Comedies

#5: Rango

Westerns don't get made very often anymore and western comedy hybrids get made even less, so Rango was a breath of fresh air in addition to being a playful celebration of the genre.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: August: Osage County (2013)

* * *

Director: John Wells
Starring: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Misty Upham

As Tolstoy said, happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Few have been as intensely and vocally unhappy as the Weston clan, forced together against their will and then stuck in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the family home. With its heavy subject matter, a cast stacked with familiar names (and a few Oscar wins between them), and a theatrical release date that was smack in the middle of prestige season, August: Osage County is a film that has a lot of built in expectations, perhaps too many not to sink at least a little bit. I skipped this one when it was in theaters, as mixed reviews made it seem non-essential, and end of the year movie fatigue started to set in, but had I seen it in the theater I expect I wouldn't have liked it as much as I did seeing it now, without having to look through the "Oscar lens" that gets applied to almost every film released towards the end of any given year. Don't get me wrong: August: Osage County is not a great movie. But it's a solid, good movie.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Review: Grizzly Man (2005)

* * * *

Director: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog is no stranger to stories of men battling against the world itself, trying to harness the power of nature and remake it according to their own design, which makes him uniquely suited to tell the story of Timothy Treadwell. For 13 summers Treadwell camped out in Katmai National Park to be near the grizzly bears he loved so dearly, filming them and, to his mind, protecting them from poachers and safeguarding their environment. This came to an abrupt end in the autumn of 2003, when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and partially eaten by a bear, Treadwell's omnipresent camera catching the audio of the event, but not the video as the lens cap was on. Using the footage collected by Treadwell over his years in Alaska, Herzog creates a stunning portrait of madness and beauty.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: The Watch (2012)

Director: Akiva Schaffer
Starring: Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayode
Domestic Gross: $34,350,553

Sometimes timing is everything. On February 29, 2012 the first promotional materials for a science fiction comedy called "Neighborhood Watch" were released, just three days after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin would make terms like "neighborhood watch" and "stand your ground" key words in countless articles, and make race relations in the United States the most hot button issue of the day. On March 27th, posters and trailers for the film would be pulled from theaters in Florida as the controversy around Martin's death intensified, and by May 4th the film's title would be changed to simply The Watch before being released on July 27th, seven days after another tragedy in the form of a mass shooting at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight. The Watch had a lot of outside forces stacked against it before finally being released and promptly disappearing from theaters, and it would be tempting to call it a victim of circumstances except for one thing: it's original title isn't the only thing that will bring the Martin case, and the issues surrounding it, to mind.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Review: Filth (2013)

* * *

Director: Jon S. Baird
Starring: James McAvoy

The current pop culture landscape is so littered with a certain type of "complicated" protagonist that repetition has made it difficult for that character type to remain remotely interesting. The angry white male whose assholery masks deep wellsprings of pain is a character type that has been bled dry in film and television in the years since Harvey Keitel perfected it in Bad Lieutenant, so it takes a particularly great story, or a particularly brilliant performance, to make such a protagonist seem anything other than utterly derivative. Jon S. Baird's Filth, based on the novel of the same name by Irving Welsh, has that brilliant performance courtesy of star James McAvoy, and it has a story that, while not necessarily great, is solid enough when it isn't wallowing in the familiar or careening wildly off the rails.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Moon (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: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell
Country: United Kingdom

Is there a lonelier setting than outer space? Characters in outer space, so far removed from everything we know from our experience as human beings, pulled so far from their roots on earth, sometimes surrounded by little more than the vast expanse of the universe, seem particularly well-suited to explore existential questions. So it is in Duncan Jones’ wonderful feature length debut Moon, about a man stationed on the moon who discovers that he is not who or what he thought he was. Designed as an homage, of sorts, to cerebral science fiction like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solyaris, Moon uses its backdrop to explore one of our most crucial questions: what does it mean to be human?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Iconic Roles That Were Almost Horribly Miscast

#5: Sean Connery as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music

Take a moment and just try to picture that. Try to imagine Sean Connery singing "Edelweiss" in his brogue. Does. Not. Compute.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: Belle (2014)

* * *

Director: Amma Asante
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon

The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle might just as easily have been called "Limbo." Illegitimate but claimed by her father, raised in privilege but possessing privilege in name only, and fenced in by the conventions of class, race, and gender, Belle's protagonist at once has every option and no options whatsoever. If she's going to move forward, she'll have to forge her own path - and knock down those who might stand in her way. It's compelling stuff and Belle manages to wring a lot of genuine, raw emotion from it, even if the film itself isn't reinventing the wheel. Handsomely mounted but somewhat lacking in imagination, Belle is saved from blending in with other historical costume dramas by the powerful performance at its center.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde
Domestic Gross: $100,240,551

Just as the period from November to January is reserved almost exclusively for the films on which studios have pinned their Oscar hopes, the period of May to July is reserved for the films the studios hope will capture the world's imagination - or, at least, their wallets. Winter is the season for quieter, more serious pictures; summer is the season of bombast and fun. But, mostly, it's the season of money. On paper, Cowboys & Aliens probably seemed like a a no-brainer. A mashup of Western, the most American of film genres (albeit one which hasn't been hugely popular in decades), and Sci-Fi, starring Indiana Jones and the most recent James Bond, from the director of the Iron Man films. A lot of money makers were involved in bringing Cowboys & Aliens to the screen, yet it limped out of its summer considered a financial failure, and out of the collective imagination even quicker than that.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday's Top 5... Fish Out of Water Movies

#5: Splash

Let's kick things off with a literal fish-out-of-water story. This romantic comedy from Ron Howard and starring Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks was one of the biggest hits (both commercially and critically) of 1984 and remains an eminently charming film.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Partners in Crime: Lee & Washington

Celebrating cinema's greatest collaborations:

Spike Lee and Denzel Washington are both incredibly dynamic artists, the former a skilled and often polarizing filmmaker whose films can never be accused of lacking a voice (if anything, some of his efforts have too much to say about too many things), the latter one of the most charismatic and gifted actors of his generation. Sometimes when two such powerful artists collaborate their strengths end up cancelling each other out, but with Lee and Washington strength meets strength to create balance. It's hard to believe, then, that the two have only come together for four films, but what their collaborations may lack in quantity, they more than make up in quality.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Finding Vivian Maier (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

At the heart of Finding Vivian Maier is a question which, due to circumstances, is never going to be answered: why did a woman who spent her entire adult life tirelessly documenting the world around her take such great pains to keep herself separate and apart from the world? The intimacy of many of her photos is in stark contrast to the seemingly complete lack of intimacy in her life, and Finding Vivian Maier is as much about the mystery of Vivian Maier's existence as it is a celebration of the work she left behind. It's an intriguing story, made possible here by some incredible detective work by co-director John Maloof, and his good luck in purchasing what turned out to be a treasure trove at auction.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

* * * 1/2

Director: Tay Garnett
Starring: Lana Turner, John Garfield

What goes around truly does come around in The Postman Always Rings Twice, as an act of violence comes boomeranging back on the perpetrators to even the score. "It's like you're expecting a letter that you're just crazy to get, and you're hanging around the front door for fear you might not hear him ring. You never realize that he always rings twice..." It's that second ring, that incident of karmic retribution, that closes the loop and brings this story of greed and murder to an unusually clean (for film noir) end. At the time it was made it was the third adaptation of James M. Cain's novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, and since then there have been two further adaptations, but there's a reason why Tay Garnett's version stands out from the crowd: it's pretty great.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

21st Century Essentials: Incendies (2010)

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: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxime Gaudette
Country: Canada

Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies has all the elements for a conventional thriller. There’s a mystery, a mission to unravel it, and danger which reveals itself only as the truth begins to come to light. Yet, Incendies is anything but conventional. By the time it reaches its final shot it has elevated itself to the level of Greek tragedy, telling a devastating story about circularity and the irrationality of violence. Based on the play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad, this is an absolutely haunting piece of work that pierces the heart and takes root in your mind.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: Blue Ruin (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Macon Blair

Lean and very mean, Jeremy Saulnier's revenge thriller Blue Ruin is a tale stripped down to the bare necessities. Although the film does not hold back when it comes to violence, including a grand finale that would seem at home in the most over-the-top action flick yet which is somehow made to fit with this film's small scale, it's ultimately a spare piece of work that wastes no time on anything that might be deemed extraneous. Everything that's here is something that needs to be here, and that sense of there being nothing left to lose helps make Blue Ruin the utterly engrossing film that it is.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review: Velvet Goldmine (1998)

* * *

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Christian Bale, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ewan McGregor

Todd Haynes has made a lot of films for grown ups, but his 1998 film Velvet Goldmine is a film that is best encountered for the first time during adolescence. Like The Catcher in the Rye, it's a work that you can appreciate as an adult, but which has the greatest impact if you're a teenager because it's so calibrated to speak to the ways that teenagers experience the world as a place full of both possibility and phoniness that puts the lie to the notion of possibility as they stumble their way through the building of their identities. Though it received mixed reviews and low box office on its release, it's a film that a lot of people seemed to have adored as teenagers (and which teenagers are apparently still discovering today). When you see it as an adult, it may have lost just a bit of its sparkle, but it remains an entertaining and engrossing film.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review: Dom Hemingway (2014)

* * *

Director: Richard Shepard
Starring: Jude Law

Most movies fade in from black. Richard Shepard's Dom Hemingway comes in from red and then comes charging at you as relentlessly as an angry bull. Its titular protagonist is a man who admits that he has anger issues and then proceeds to prove it in scene after scene whenever he's not too busy extolling his own awesomeness, which is so great that it takes on otherworldly proportions. It's funny, watching this film, to think that there was a time when Jude Law was stuck playing "pretty boy" roles because Dom Hemingway is anything but a pretty boy. He's violent, he's crass, he's deeply self-centered, and he provides Law with one of his most interesting roles to date.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Hollywood Book Club: Room 1219

It was the original Hollywood scandal, and it had everything: booze, sex, death, and one of the biggest box office stars of the era. It took three trials and a media circus before a verdict was rendered, but the decision rendered in the court of justice didn't much matter compared to the decision in the court of public opinion, out of which a legend would grow which bears little resemblance to the actual facts in the case. Greg Merritt's Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood is part biography, part true crime account, and wholly engrossing from beginning to end.