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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review: The Danish Girl (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander

I can't help but wonder how much better The Danish Girl could have been if it was actually about Lili Elbe. In its present form, The Danish Girl is the sort of standard issue prestige picture Hollywood typically resorts to when it finds itself trying to grapple with the plight of the "other": handsomely mounted, polite and playing it safe narratively, and using a character that better reflects the sensibility of the people making the movie to act as the lens through which the minority character's story is told. This is Lili Elbe's story by way of Gerda Wegener. It's so much Gerda Wegener's story that she is the "Danish girl" of the title, referred to as such by another character. She's the character we meet first. She's the character we see last. The distinction between "lead" and "supporting" performances for the Oscars has always been a bit sketchy, but Alicia Vikander winning as supporting actress for this film renders the distinction entirely meaningless.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Netflix Recommends... Transcendence (2014)

* *

Director: Wally Pfister
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman

We can do anything now that scientists have invented magic. But, oh, this is not cause for celebration, for the future brings nothing but despair according to Transcendence, a film pitched not merely at the level of panic, but at sheer hysteria in its nightmare vision about the slippery slope of technology. Once we create a self-aware AI, there's nothing it won't be able to do! We'll have to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater just to stop it! All that will be left is destruction, darkness, and a backwards leap into a pre-technological age. Transcendence has an interesting premise, which is perhaps to be expected from a film whose screenplay once appeared on Hollywood's famed Black List, the annual roster of the best unproduced screenplays in any given year (though given that this year's critically reviled Dirty Grandpa also once appeared on the Black List, as did such beloved classics as The Other Boleyn Girl, Wild Hogs, All About Steve, Clash of the Titans, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it's perhaps not the prestigious list it sells itself as being), but it doesn't do anything very interesting with it.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: Primer (2004)

* * * *

Director: Shane Carruth
Starring: David Sullivan, Shane Carruth

The question of accessibility is one of the more complicated aspects when considering a film's quality. One the one hand, an argument could be made that a film can only really be as successful as its ability to reach and connect with as many people as possible, meaning that anyone could sit down and watch it and absorb what it's doing to the extent that it's effective even with just one viewing. On the other hand, there are many really great movies that can't really be grasped with just one viewing and demand more work on the part of the audience to follow it the first time and then take what you know from the first viewing and use it to enhance your understanding on the next. In a certain context the words "see it again" can be an obnoxious thing to say to someone about a movie, implying as it does that if they didn't like it, it's because they just didn't "get" it, but some movies you really do need to see at least twice in order to understand what they're doing and how they're doing it. Those films are less accessible, but they aren't lesser films for that. Shane Carruth's Primer is one of those movies, a film that doesn't do a lot to help its audience along, but which feels more engaging and more rewarding with every viewing.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Away From Her (2007)

Director: Sarah Polley
Starring: Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie
Country: Canada

The world for her is becoming a bare canvass, a place full of blanks that her mind struggles to fill so that she can carry on rather than be rendered paralyzed with fear. Part of what makes Away From Her so effective a film is that it manages to find a sustained visual way of expressing the loss that she - Fiona, played wonderfully by Julie Christie - is experiencing, and couples it with the deeply emotional and very complex experience of her husband as he reckons with their past, tries to come to terms with their future, and does whatever he can to stave off the feeling of helplessness that threatens to overwhelm him. Now almost 10 years old, Away From Her remains a powerful drama, one fueled not by melodramatics, but by strong character work by the actors in front of the camera and by sharp, empathetic work behind the camera by Sarah Polley, making her feature debut as a writer/director.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Review: Creed (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone

Two men stand in front of a mirror. The older one, the mentor, points to the younger one's reflection and tells him that that's the toughest opponent he'll ever have to face. Is this moment a cliche? Yes, absolutely; variations on this moment have factored into countless stories, especially sports stories. Does it work regardless? Yes. Like so many cliches that have appeared throughout the course of the Rocky series, this one is embraced in such a sincere fashion and woven so lovingly into the fabric of the narrative that it becomes a positive instead of a negative. Seven films in, the Rocky formula is by now well-worn (truth told, the formula was already well-worn with the first one), but with Creed - an entry which takes the story in the only direction it has left to go: back to the start - it doesn't feel tired. Thanks to a new star in Michael B. Jordan and a new energy brought by director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, Creed is a vibrant movie that more than justifies the continuation of a series that is now just shy of 40 years old.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review: The Age of Innocence (1993)

* * * *

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder

The Age of Innocence may very well be Martin Scorsese's most underrated movie. While his certified masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Goodfellas are still spoken of with reverence sometimes bordering on worship, and even flawed, divisive work like Gangs of New York and The King of Comedy have their passionate defenders, his elegantly meticulous rendering of Edith Wharton's masterpiece seems to have been somewhat forgotten. This is a shame since, aside from being simply a great movie, it's also a near perfect adaptation of its source, one which captures the narrative scope of Wharton's story as well as its stylistic flourishes, translating them from the literary to the visual. It's a wonderful film, albeit one which begs the question: how does a film which boasts marvelous performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer end up with only one Oscar nomination for acting and see it go to Winona Ryder?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Olympic Themed Movies

#5: Walk, Don't Run

A sentimental pick, if only because it marks the last feature film appearance of Cary Grant. It's also a cute movie that is a remake of the equally cute The More the Merrier, transporting the story to Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics where a housing shortage finds Grant's businessman sharing an apartment with a young woman and an Olympic hopeful and trying to play matchmaker between them. It's a breezy and inconsequential movie, but it's pretty delightful.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ten Years Later... V for Vendetta (2006)

Director: James McTeigue
Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving

"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." A fine line for a screenplay, but one that ignores a pretty basic fact: governments enact measures to make people afraid of them precisely because governments are afraid of their people. But, hey, V for Vendetta isn't a lesson in politics; it's just a dystopian thriller that drapes itself in political ideas to keep its story moving forward. It's tempting, then and now, to look at it and compare it to the political situation of the present day and ask just how far removed from this vision things are, but the film's politics ultimately don't stand up to much scrutiny. That doesn't mean that it isn't effective and entertaining for exactly what it is - a mystery/action thriller - but the fact that it expresses a few political sentiments to create an urgent us versus them framework doesn't mean that it's more than what it is, either.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: Black Mass (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton

Black Mass is one of the more curious films of 2015 in terms of its pop culture trajectory. When the trailer came out, people seemed to be abuzz and ready to declare that Johnny Depp was back, after years spent in the wilderness of schticky, make-up dependent characters, to being a serious, risk taking actor (never mind that this role also requires him to wear a lot of makeup, this is a serious role, after all, not a wacky one). Then the film came out and reviews were decent and there was some talk about an Oscar nomination for Depp, but no one seemed particularly excited about the film, and then it just sort of seemed to fade away. Having now seen Black Mass, I can sort of understand why. It's a fine movie, in the way that gangster movies living in the long shadow of Goodfellas can be fine, and Depp gives his best, most engaged performance in some time, but the film has a fatal flaw that keeps it from being anything more than so-so: it has tailored itself to fit the character played by the star instead of the character who is the story's true protagonist, and as a result struggles to tell a story.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review: House of Flying Daggers (2004)

* * * *

Director: Zhang Yimou
Starring: Andy Lau, Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro

The most surprising thing about Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers is that it gained a high enough profile in North America to net cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding an Oscar nomination, but didn't receive nominations for its costume or production design. House of Flying Daggers is a stunningly beautiful film in every respect, one that moves from one amazing set piece to another as it unfolds a tale of adventure and romance. One of China's major contemporary filmmakers (and one who may cross over in North America when his first English-language film, The Great Wall is released later this year), Zhang has several great, gorgeous looking films to his credit and House of Flying Daggers is one of his best and most enthralling.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Faithless (2000)

Director: Liv Ullmann
Starring: Lena Endre, Erland Josephson, Krister Henriksson
Country: Sweden

Faithless begins with its protagonist solemnly intoning that divorce is the most traumatic personal failure one can endure. The film was written by Ingmar Bergman (the protagonist, incidentally, is named "Bergman," though never addressed as such through the course of the film), who would know of what he speaks, having been divorced three times. Directed by Liv Ullmann, arguably the most famous of his many muses, the film is a meditation on the enduring pain of the breakdown of a marriage, though it's told, interestingly, not from the perspective of a husband and wife, but from the perspective of the wife and the lover for whom she leaves the marriage. At two and a half hours, during the course of most of which everyone on screen is utterly miserable, it can seem daunting, but it doesn't take long for the film to draw you in so completely that the running time feels like no time at all, and it's so fascinating in its depiction of two relationships breaking apart that it can be revisited multiple times with new discoveries in each.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday's Top 5... Shared Cinematic Universes (Non-Marvel Edition)

#5: The Ridley Scott Science Fiction-verse

I'll preface this by saying that this one only ranks last because the evidence for it is, let's say "fragile." By virtue of the fact of the existence of Alien versus Predator, we know that the Alien series and the Predator series exist in the same fictional universe, that one's for sure. The connection between Alien and Blade Runner, both directed by Ridley Scott, is a little less certain in terms of hard evidence, but there is a very brief shot in Scott's Prometheus, a prequel to Alien, which suggests a connection between the tycoon of that film and the tycoon responsible for the replicants in Blade Runner, so we'll allow it. So Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus: one universe... at least until the non-Scott helmed Blade Runner sequel comes out, then who knows what'll happen.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

* *

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Starring: Tina Fey

Meet Kim. She's a 40-something woman with a good job that leaves her unfulfilled, a relationship that she's decided to remain half-way invested in despite feeling unfulfilled by it, and a life that is marked by an inescapable sense of sameness and lack of forward movement. She's complacently unhappy and so when the opportunity comes to go to Afghanistan to work as a war correspondent, she sees it as no less than an opportunity to scrap her life entirely and remake it from scratch. "That is the most American white lady story I've ever heard," is the response she gets when she explains what she's doing in Kabul. If that moment was indicative of the level of self-awareness that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was dealing in generally, it would be a much better movie, but it's ambitions are much lower. While the film certainly has its moments, it's ultimately not more than a star vehicle built on an uneasy mishmash of genres.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Netflix Recommends... 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

* *

Director: Noam Murro
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro

A movie like 300: Rise of an Empire is kind of like a test for the audience. At about the 20 minute mark, Eva Green beheads a man, holds his head up, and kisses it on the lips as blood drips from the neck, and as a viewer you're either in the mood to embrace a moment like this (which is not isolated, but representative of what the film is doing generally) as being so hilariously ridiculous that it becomes sublime, or you're not. I genuinely cannot imagine that there's any sort of middle ground. Rise of an Empire is not a good movie - though, one could argue that it is a good sequel, insofar as it feels completely of a piece with 300 - but enough scenes in it are so supremely entertaining as to make it worth a watch. You'll know you're about to watch one of those scenes within a second of it starting - they're all the ones with Green in them.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review: The Witch (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie

Although its low budget means that it's already a success even with a domestic box office of only about $20 million so far, I reckon that The Witch would have found greater success with a different marketing strategy. Sold as a horror movie, it's not likely to fulfill hardcore horror fans and gain good word of mouth (as its "C-" CinemaScore can attest) from those going into it expecting a visceral experience. The Witch is a horror movie in the way that, for example, Tod Browning's Dracula, James Whale's Frankenstein, and other 1930s monster movies are horror movies; it's atmospheric and deals with the supernatural, but it's not scary to a modern audience accustomed to jumpscares and creative, graphic deaths. It is, however, marketed as if it's a scary movie, which likely keeps a lot of non-horror fans away, whereas if the film were marketed as a psychological drama, those missing audience members might show up and might enjoy it for what it really is.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Review: Trumbo (2015)

* *

Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren

Last fall, Quentin Tarantino got himself in a bit of hot water for an interview in which he suggested that Ava DuVernay's Selma wasn't really snubbed at last year's Oscars because it was a film better suited to being a TV movie. Despite the fact that TV is currently the "it" medium where all the most talked about work is being done right now, the implication in suggesting that it should have been a TV movie is that it's wasn't good enough, that it's a work of high-brow mediocrity designed to be consumed by the wide-ranging television audience, rather than a challenging work of art designed for a more specific and discerning film audience. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but that opinion was dumb. Selma is a masterpiece that deserved far more than the 2 Oscar nominations it got, and it's a film that I believe will stand the test of time as one of the best that 2014 had to offer. Now Trumbo, on the other hand? This is a glorified TV movie, one so superficial, so facile, so unwilling to challenge its audience in any way that it would have had to have been made more than a decade ago, well before TV started to mean "prestige," just make it onto the air.