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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Tales From the Black List: 50/50 (2011)

* * *

Director: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogan

"That doesn't make any sense though. I mean, I don't smoke, I don't drink, I recycle..." Cancer is the great equalizer. You can do everything right and live an entirely unimpeachable life, you can be young or old, male or female, be anyone anywhere, and still get the news. Loosely based on screenwriter Will Reiser's experience with cancer 50/50, which was part of the 2008 Black List (a list which also included such films as Inglorious Basterds, Up in the Air, The Descendants, Easy A, Foxcatcher and Sherlock Holmes), doesn't linger on the shock of the diagnosis. It comes fast, is given a moment, and then the film carries on, cycling through the stages of grief as it follows its protagonist, whose story is as much about him learning to deal with his diagnosis as it is him learning how to deal with the people around him as they deal with his diagnosis. It's a film that finds the comedy in tragedy, alternately funny and moving, and ultimately very humane.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

* *

Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

I was a great admirer of Tom Ford's debut film, A Single Man, which was not only incredibly stylish but also managed to be a moving portrait of a man struggling to grieve a loss that the mores of the time keep him from openly acknowledging. I'm considerably less keen on Nocturnal Animals, which is also stylish and even, in moments, expertly made, but overall reeks of fraud. Nocturnal Animals is a movie that doesn't actually seem to have anything to say, save for the most superficial and banal things possible, but revels in empty symbols that give the appearance of profundity. It's unfortunate, because the film actually contains some pretty incredible performances (including that of Michael Shannon, which received an Oscar nomination), but even the fine work of the actors can't disguise how vapid an enterprise this is.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: Certain Women (2016)

* * * 1/2

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, Kristen Stewart

Over the course of six feature films, writer/director Kelly Reichardt has become a master of the small-scale story, narratives where the stakes are slight and deeply personal, driven by character more than plot. In Certain Women "plot" barely even registers; things happen, but what happens seems almost incidental. It's a film that's all about reaction, about how the women in the film respond to things they hadn't anticipated and how they're changed, or not changed, by them. It's an expertly told, intuitive film that tells three tenuously connected stories, each one anchored by a different actress. Most films struggle to find room for one good female character; this one features four and makes it look so easy that you're left wondering what the problem is with other movies.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

21st Century Essentials: No Country For Old Men (2007)

Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem
Country: United States

Most artists are lucky if they create one bona fide masterpiece - such things are special precisely because they are rare. Having made both Fargo and No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen have made two (one might even argue that they've made three, including Blood Simple). An instantly iconic film, thanks in part to Javier Bardem's villain, Anton Chigurh, the most dangerous person ever to sport a Dorothy Hamill haircut, No Country For Old Men was one of the most hyped movies of 2007 and would become the Coen brother's most successful film at the box office (until being supplanted in 2010 by True Grit) and be nominated for 8 Oscars, winning 4 (including Best Picture). That's not always a recipe for longevity - plenty of movies have raked in the money and won Oscars only to be forgotten afterwards, and if anything a lot of hype tends to hurt a movie in the long run as it sets expectations impossibly high, but No Country For Old Men is a film that can withstand that kind of pressure. It's the real deal, a film that continues to mesmerize after a decade and multiple viewings.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday's Top 5... Movies Based on Graphic Novels (That Aren't About Super Heroes)

#5: Ghost World

Dry as a bone, Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name, is about a teenage girl who is very smart, but maybe not as mature as she is intelligent, and the breakdown in the relationship with her best friend as their interests begin to diverge. It's a funny, complex look at that weird transition between adolescence and adulthood, and it features great performances from Thora Birch, Steve Buscemi, and Scarlett Johnasson

Sunday, March 19, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: The Misfits (1961)

Director: John Huston
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter

The marathon comes to an end, appropriately enough, with The Misfits, a film which has "the end" written all over it. It's the final film that Marilyn Monroe completed, the final film of Clark Gable, its production was the final nail in the coffin of Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller (who wrote the screenplay), and its story is all about things ending and people struggling to accept it. There's something funereal about The Misfits, something which makes it as poignant as it is upsetting (on the whole I wouldn't describe the film as "upsetting," but that last 20/30 minutes is pretty hard to watch). It's a melancholy film about very sad people, but it's a great film and I don't think Monroe was ever better than she was here, even if the making of this movie took everything she had left.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: Some Like It Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe

A great movie is the result of a lot of elements coming together in just the right way. There's no formula to it - what works in one film won't necessarily work in another, what doesn't work in other films might work marvelously when guided by the right hand - and great works of art tend to be great in their own specific, unique ways. But if there's any one thing that great movies, of any genre and from any time period, tend to share, it's a strong ending. Casablanca, The Godfather, Fargo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - wildly different films, but each possessed of a perfect ending. Some Like It Hot is another member of the perfect ending club, its final two words arguably the greatest comedic payoff in cinema history. Everything that comes before that is pretty great, too, but damn what an ending. A classic among classics and a highlight in the careers of all of Marilyn Monroe, Billy Wilder, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot is one of those enduring films that just works no matter when you see it and which reconfirms itself as a masterpiece with few equals every time you see it.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Tom Ewell

If I had to define the difference between a movie star and a movie icon, I would argue that a movie star is someone that people are familiar with because of their movies, while a movie icon is someone with whom a majority of people are familiar because of isolated moments and images from their movies. Everyone knows the image of Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate, but outside of film buffs, Monroe fans, and Billy Wilder fans, how many people who know that image know what film it comes from? And if they can name the film, can they describe the context of the scene? The moment is bigger than the movie, having taken on a life of its own in the 62 years since the film's release, and in the popular imagination it's now considered less a moment from a film than it is a part of Monroe's identity. If most people are only familiar with the subway grate scene in isolation, and not from having seen The Seven Year Itch, that's kind of a shame because the film is a highly entertaining farce - even if it works for precisely the reason that Wilder felt it ultimately didn't.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: There's No Business Like Show Business (1954)

Director: Walter Lang
Starring: Ethel Merman, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor, Marilyn Monroe

This will be a short one, because there's frankly not all that much to say. Of all the films I'm watching for this series, There's No Business Like Show Business is the only one that I had absolutely no familiarity beforehand. I actually hadn't even heard of it before, which is odd considering it's a film from right in the thick of the years when she was a super star, with just about every role a notable one. A fairly unremarkable film, There's No Business Like Show Business has got some decent song and dance numbers to it (though it would have to, with this cast), but it's kind of a bland and formulaic "showbiz" movie, even by the standards of showbiz movies. If you're a Donald O'Connor fan or an Ethel Merman fan, then it's worth a watch to get to see them do the things they do best; but with respect to Marilyn Monroe, this is a film for completionists only.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: River of No Return (1954)

Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe

And now for something completely different. From the frothy, female-centered comedy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, to the rugged western/adventure of River of No Return, a movie brimming with testosterone. How manly is River of No Return? It opens with Robert Mitchum chopping down a tree so that he can build a log cabin all by himself, and then proceeds to have him get into three hand-to-hand combat fights, prove himself an expert marksman, captain a rickety raft down the eponymous river whose rapids are supposed to be unconquerable, capture and kill a deer while rafting down that river, wrestle a cougar, and single-handedly fight off a war party. If River of No Return was a person instead of a movie, you'd think it was overcompensating for something.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

Director: Jean Negulesco
Starring: Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable

Carrying on with the biggest hit of Marilyn Monroe's star-making year, How to Marry a Millionaire, in which Monroe is teamed with fellow icons Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable. All told, this one doesn't age quite as well as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, primarily because its strategy for creating conflict is to have one of the women act like a complete cow to whatever guy she's with at the moment and to have him react not by dropping her (as any reasonable human being would) but by wanting her more. That being said, it does have more than a few moments that are sharp and funny and a couple that are just downright strange (such as an early scene in which the three women discuss the kind of men they're willing to associate with, who will only be the best of the best in terms of class and wealth, while sitting around eating hot dogs, the classiest of all food), and any movie that features scenes of Monroe, Bacall, and Grable, each an icon in her own right, is worth a look at the very least.

Monday, March 13, 2017

My Week with Marilyn: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe

I'm kicking a week-long Marilyn Monroe marathon with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the film which features, courtesy of the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number, the second most iconic moment in Marilyn Monroe's film career (the first being the grate in The Seven Year Itch, naturally). Starring Monroe and Jane Russell as two little girls from Little Rock, one of whom is out to close the deal by marrying her wealthy suitor, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a delightful comedy that adheres to the principle of K.I.S.S. - Keep It Simple, Stupid. The plot is about as straightforward as it comes, even when the potential twists are right there waiting to be used, and the pacing is zippy, as befitting a film from the expert hands of Howard Hawks, but perhaps the most surprising thing about this comedy is how generally unobjectionable its gender politics are. It's amazing that a 64 year old film about a woman trying to land a rich husband can manage to do so much better in terms of depicting women than many studio films released today.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Toni Erdmann (2016)

* * * *

Director: Maren Ade
Starring: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller

There are things about Toni Erdmann which, sight unseen, might seem daunting. It's a non-English language film, which is a dealbreaker for a number of people. Don't let that be a deterrent - a sizable portion of the dialogue occurs in English, surprisingly enough. It's two hours and forty-five minutes long, a positively unseemly length for a film that bills itself as a comedy. Believe me, you won't feel it. It starts a little slow but once it builds up steam, it zips by. Paramount is already gearing up to remake the film with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig. Don't wait for it, see the original first. Not only is this movie brilliant and unrestrainedly bizarre, it is genuinely very funny. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw a movie with scenes so outrageously funny and surprising that people in the audience literally shrieked with laughter, but that happened when I saw Toni Erdmann. Seriously, just see it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

21st Century Essentials: The Look of Silence (2015)

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Country: Denmark/Finland/France/Germany/Indonesia/Israel/Netherlands/Norway/Taiwan/United Kingdom/United States

Taken separately or together, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence are the most intimate look at the banality of evil ever captured on film. Taking as their subject the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, a purge that resulted in the deaths of between 500,000 to 1 million people, the films go right to the source, with the first getting some of the men who carried out the killings to describe in detail what they did, where they did it, and how they did it, and the second following the efforts of a man whose brother was a victim of the purge as he attempts to get the families of the killers to acknowledge the evil that was done to his family by theirs. They are not easy films; they are often chilling, they are sometimes sickening, and they are ugly for what they reveal about humanity and how easily brutality can become normalized and embraced by a community. The Look of Silence is an enormously powerful film, the kind that makes an immediate and lasting impact.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday's Top 5... My Most Anticipated Movies of Summer

#5: The Beguiled (June 23rd)

I'm not really a fan of Sofia Coppola, but the trailer looks atmospheric and promising (though Colin Farrel's wailing at the end about "vengeful bitches" immediately made me think of the Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man, which maybe isn't a great sign).

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ten Years Later... 300 (2007)

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Rodrigo Santoro

Blood. Abs. Scenery, thoroughly chewed. This is history as seen through the eyes of Frank Miller and Zack Snyder, two artists who for a hot minute 10 years ago had some people convinced that they might be visionaries, but who have since been brought down to earth by proving to be, respectively, a one-trick pony (at least in terms of his work in film) and the man who has made Ben Affleck depressed about playing Batman. 300 was definitely a landmark film in terms of a certain visual style that spawned many imitators (though one might argue that it merely continued the work started by Sin City), but with all that imitation comes a watering down of what was once so impressive. Without that shock that comes from seeing something visually exhilarating, is there anything left to recommend 300?