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Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Political Comedies

#5: The Candidate

The Candidate is a man who agrees to run a campaign guaranteed to lose simply to get his message out, and who gains the Democratic nomination simply because no one else in the party wants to run against the overwhelmingly popular Republican candidate. However, while the Democratic party needs someone to run, they also don't want to see him humiliated, which results in the would-be "say anything" candidate having his message tempered until it is basically meaningless... and gaining the lead in the polls in the process. A cynical and blackly comic Robert Redford vehicle, The Candidate is a movie that seems less and less like the satire it's supposed to be, and more like realism, with every election cycle.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Steve Jobs (2015)

* * *

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels

As written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs is not your typical "important man" biopic. It's a biopic that unfolds in three distinct acts, each one focusing on the minutes leading up to a particular product launch, concerned less with pure historical accuracy and revealing the "real" Steve Jobs than it is with exploring the idea of Steve Jobs, pivoting around two key ideas about the man - his struggle over the fact of being adopted and his struggle to accept his role as a father to his eldest child - connected by his need for control. It isn't an especially subtle movie (if you miss the point the first time, the screenplay will circle back to it once or twice later), but it's a vibrant one and totally engrossing from beginning to end. It also adds yet another entry in Michael Fassbender's quickly growing gallery of fantastic performances.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Dope (2015)

* * *

Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore

For a film that spends a decent amount of its running time hearkening back to the not too distant past, reviving dead fashions and obsessing over decades' old cultural artifacts, Rick Famuyiwa's Dope is a blisteringly original movie. Part comedy, part drama, part crime thriller, Dope is a film that defies easy categorization and which, if it did not have such a confident and skilled hand guiding it in writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, would probably fall apart as a result of its frequent and sharp tonal changes. In Famuyiwa's hands, though, it works, the film's point of view always firm, the shifts merely an expression of the complexity of the protagonist and his circumstances rather than a sign of a filmmaker who doesn't quite know how to say what he wants to say. Dope knows exactly what it's doing, and it does it well.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Beasts of No Nation (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

While the great thing about the release strategy for Beasts of No Nation, which was made available on Netflix simultaneously with its theatrical release, is that more people will be able to see it right away (because, let's face it, even if a bunch of theater chains weren't boycotting it because of it being available already on Netflix, a small budget drama about a child soldier was probably never going to get a very wide theatrical release), the unfortunate thing is that most of us will see on a small screen scenes which were made for a big screen. The story may be an intimate one, but the vistas captured by Cary Fukunaga, who takes on cinematography duties in addition to writing and directing, are truly grand. Above all, Beasts of No Nation is a stunning looking film, though it's the content, not the look, that brings it just within reach of greatness.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Mother (2009)

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

Is there any force more powerful than a mother’s love? Certainly not in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, a film in which the title character would do anything for her son, a young man of marginal intelligence, vulnerable to manipulation, who ends up arrested for murder. Hers is a crusade to prove his innocence and, in a more conventional film, that would be the story: a determined woman fighting against the odds to rescue her child. But Mother isn’t a conventional film and its hero is not a conventional woman; it tells its story in shades of gray, unfolding it so that the concept of morality becomes increasingly meaningless. The only thing that remains true from beginning to end is that it is a fascinating, endlessly engrossing movie.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Movie Chefs

#5: Antonio, I Am Love

In terms of screen time, Antonio does not play a major role in I Am Love. In terms of the film's story, however, he's of major importance, his cooking causing the protagonist to have a moment of spiritual awakening that begins the process of her breaking away from the rigid rules of her unsatisfactory life and running away. With Antonio. That must have been one hell of a dish.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Ten Years Later... Elizabethtown (2005)

Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst

19 years ago, writer/director/music curator Cameron Crowe released a movie about a golden boy for whom success comes easily right up until he experiences a massive failure from which he can only come back with the help of a good woman and an adorable moppet. It made $153 million dollars, coined a couple of catchphrases, and was nominated for 5 Oscars. 10 years ago, Crowe released a movie about a golden boy for whom success comes easily right up until he experiences a massive failure from which he can only come back with the help of a whimsical young woman. It made $26 million against a $45 million production budget, inspired a term to describe the kind of shallow nothing of a female character it features as the love interest, and was met largely with critical disdain. Was it Crowe that changed, or was it us, and does 10 years make any difference in how Elizabethtown plays?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks

It's easy to have ideals when they aren't being challenged; it's more difficult when you have to choose whether to hold firm to those ideals even when they could achieve an undesirable outcome, or see the integrity of those ideals reduced in order ensure a favorable outcome through manipulation. Bridge of Spies is about an idealistic man who believes so firmly in what he values that he's willing to expose himself to public ridicule to stand up for it, and is willing to go a few steps further than that, too. He's the kind of character that would have been played by Spencer Tracy or James Stewart in a different era, and could only be played in this one by Tom Hanks. As played by Hanks, he's a hero without being a moralizing one, and as directed by Steven Spielberg the film is a well crafted machine that seamlessly blends the courtroom drama with the spy thriller without making it feel like two different stories shoved together.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: Grandma (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Paul Weitz
Starring: Lily Tomlin

"Mom says you're philanthropic," the granddaughter states, much to her grandmother's confusion. After thinking about it a moment, she corrects herself, she meant "misanthropic." The grandmother nods; that makes a lot more sense. Paul Weitz's Grandma is as delicate a gem as its title character is difficult and caustic. It's a film that begins with an ending, takes its characters on a literal journey which finds them circling right back to square one, and is unafraid to make it as hard as possible to like its protagonist for much of its running time, and it's funny, intelligent, and ultimately kind of heartwarming. Hard to believe that this is from the same director as American Pie.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Steven Spielberg Movies - Post-Second Oscar Edition

#5: War Horse

Spielberg is constantly accused of sentimentality, and War Horse is easily one of his most unabashedly sentimental films, but that's actually one of the things that makes it work so well. A throwback to an earlier era of cinema, when irony was not the norm, War Horse is a proudly earnest film that makes no bones about its desire to tug your heartstrings, but that's part of what makes it so great.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Cloudburst (2011)

* * *

Director: Thom Fitzgerald
Starring: Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Fricker

Thom Fitzgerald's Cloudburst, based on his stage play of the same name, is a surprisingly daring movie. It's not daring because of its premise, which involves a long-term same-sex couple trying to get married so that they can avoid being separated and which almost seems quaint at this point, but it is kind of daring for the way that it depicts its characters and their relationship and, in particular, their sexuality. Typically the elderly are depicted in pop culture as being not just sexless, but desireless as well, but Cloudburst is pretty unapologetic in portraying its couple as sexual beings. That feels sort of revolutionary, even if the film's more overtly stated political message is slightly blunted by the fact that it relies on a straw man to make its point.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review: I'll See You in My Dreams (2015)

* * *

Director: Brett Haley
Starring: Blythe Danner

Late in Brett Haley's I'll See You in My Dreams its protagonist Carol wonders what the point is of getting attached to anyone when it means that you're just going to lose them at some point. Her fireplace mantel is already a memorial to several loved ones - human and animal - their ashes displayed prominently alongside photos. She knows so much loss already that she confesses that she's begun to feel numb to it - so what's the point? If the film, a gentle and meditative character study, can be said to contain any lesson at all, it's that the point is that without the connection provided by relationships, there's no point to any of it at all. While that may not be the most profound of statements, having been made already in countless works of fiction, it's profound enough for this very unassuming movie which acts primarily as a showcase for the talents of star Blythe Danner.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Welcome to Me (2015)

* *

Director: Shiva Piven
Starring: Kristen Wiig

I'm not quite sure whether Welcome to Me is brilliant or bonkers. It has a bold premise, to be sure, but even after two viewings I'm not entirely sure whether it's an incisive look at our increasingly narcissistic, navel gazing culture, or a misguided project that tries to wring laughs out of the exploits and exploitation of a person with a mental illness without ever making a solid point about what's going on. The only thing I know for sure is that it features a really good performance from star Kristen Wiig, who probably could have parlayed the success of Bridesmaids into Melissa McCarthy-level commercial success in broad comedy, but has instead opted to take her career in a stranger, more interesting direction, even if the movies that she chooses aren't always up to the same level of her performances in them.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

21st Century Essentials: The Tree of Life (2011)

Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn
Country: United States

There are few films out there that feel as totally and defiantly personal as Terrence Malick’s grand opus The Tree of Life. Even as it grapples with some of the great questions of the human experience – Why are we here? Why must we leave? What does it all mean? – it locates a specific, subjective experience at its center. Because it eschews traditional narrative structure, unfolding in images and moments rather than as a conventional story, and favors voiceover over dialogue, it can make for a divisive viewing experience. What feels riveting to some may feel ponderous to others, but The Tree of Life is a film that benefits from multiple viewings. The first viewing can be overwhelming, the power of the film’s images taking your breath away, but subsequent viewings allow for things to come into a finer focus and for the richness of the experience to truly be felt. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but The Tree of Life is not just a major work from Malick, but one of the major works of the century.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: Sicario (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin

"Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything you do." The world depicted in Denis Villeneuve's Sicario is one of chaos and pain, a world in which a good person trying to do the right thing in the right way doesn't stand a chance, though they won't realize it until the point where they're so completely beaten down that there's basically nothing left. It's a bleak movie, is what I'm saying, but it's also a powerful one that rivals Traffic in its depiction of the impact of the drug trade from both sides of the border between the US and Mexico. Like Villeneuve's Prisoners, this is a white-knuckle ride into the darker aspects of humanity and it's not for the feint of heart.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: The Martian (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor

If you can say nothing else for it, you have to at least give Ridley Scott's The Martian props for not being afraid to go big. It's a movie that properly earns the distinction as a "spectacle," being an epic and visually stunning science fiction tale, but it's also a thematically big picture, one that seeks to portray and affirm the triumph of human ingenuity and determination, and of the human spirit. It's a feel good movie that's exhilarating rather than mushy, a science fiction story that's more about awe than terror, and a character piece that offers a wonderful showcase for the talents of Matt Damon. To my mind, this is the movie that last year's Interstellar wanted to be but wasn't.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Review: The Duke of Burgundy (2015)

* * * *

Director: Peter Strickland
Starring: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D'Anna

Although it has a premise that sounds lurid, and is styled to resemble European softcore from the 1970s, Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy isn't an exercise in titillation. All things considered, it's actually pretty tame in its sexual content, trading more on eroticism than sex or nudity, and when you get beyond the superficial aspects of its kink, it's a thoughtful and nuanced story not just about a relationship, but about relationships generally. Built around solid performances from Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D'Anna which root the story to a core of truth even as the film itself throws out touches of unreality, The Duke of Burgundy is a fascinating and engrossing viewing experience. Gorgeous, hypnotic, and ultimately quite moving, this is surely one of the year's best films.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Review: This Is the End (2013)

* * *

Director: Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride

Each of the principal actors of This Is the End have made their share of bad movies, but for every bad movie they've made since, they can at least point to this one in order to regain a little bit of good will. An apocalypse comedy in which everyone plays an exaggerated (I would hope) version of himself, This Is the End plays upon the public personas of its stars and supporting players to great effect, playing into and against what we think we know about the stars based on their movies and public appearances, all while telling a surprisingly potent story about the difficulty of sustaining a friendship as circumstances change and physical distance gives way to psychological distance. Mostly, though, it's just really funny - though it probably could have gotten by with at least one fewer rape joke.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Michael Fassbender Performances

#5: Hunger

A year before really breaking through with his role in Inglorious Basterds, Fassbender made the first of his (so far) three films with Steve McQueen, portraying IRA member Bobby Sands in Hunger. Fassbender underwent a dramatic weight loss to play the hunger striking prisoner, but it's the performance, not the look, that matters and nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the 17 minute, unbroken take where Fassbender and co-star Liam Cunningham share a long talk of the soul.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

* * * *

Director: Guy Maddin
Starring: Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich

There's something very invigorating about a Guy Maddin film. As a filmmaker, he does things so completely, defiantly his own way, unfettered by what's on trend, unconcerned with what's commercial, that his films are always their own distinct things that cannot be mistaken as coming from anyone else. Brand Upon the Brain! is one of his better known, and more widely seen, gems and it's also one of his best. A psychosexual drama about a man grappling with the unresolved passions of his adolescence, and the secrets of his family's strange dynamics, Brand Upon the Brain! is a surrealist adventure that you have to see to believe... and even then, you might not quite believe it.