Frances Ha

May 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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“Frances Ha” seems to have stepped right out of the 90s indy film movement and reminded me of the early works of Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and Rose Troche.  It was directed by Noah Baumbach, who also directed the brilliant “The Squid and The Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding.”  He wrote both of those screenplays and has contributed to such widely diverse films as “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “Madagascar 3.”  He co-wrote this film with Greta Gerwig, the 30 year old actress best known for Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love” and the super-indy “Baghead.”  “Frances Ha” is black and white and very modest in scope, following a young New Yorker through several months of her life (maybe a year or more?) as she deals with sort of growing up.  Frances has a bond with her best friend Sophie (played by Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter) that she describes as “an old married lesbian couple without the sex.”  A true enough description probably.  So, when Sophie suddenly moves out (and on with her life), Frances is left grieving but not knowing how to express it.  She spends the movie fumbling through finding out who and how to be.  The film is full of the anxious and disaffected youth of films like “Slackers” and “Go Fish.”  While not as funny as “Clerks,” this film was genuinely funny throughout, though it’s humor is far sweeter and sillier and less biting than “Clerks.”  This was a lovely and touching film, acted with a sort of perfect, wide-eyed goofiness by Gerwig.  It is modest in scope and far from a masterpiece.  Nor does it feel as relevant today as the same type of films did 15-20 years ago.  However, it felt almost nostalgic to me and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I will definitely keep an eye on Baumbach and Gerwig in the future.

Star Trek Into Darkness

May 20, 2013 at 11:46 am | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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Within the pantheon of Trek movies (there have been an even dozen now), this definitely ranks up there with the best.  It is not as good as “The Wrath of Khan” or “First Contact” but is solidly third on the list.  This one involves the newly minted Captain Kirk, still cocky having never lost a single crew member, learning a thing or two about humility when facing off against the mysterious John Harrison.  Along the way there will be plenty of explosions (and dead crew members) and a healthy dose of the banter and quips that audiences love. The film’s action moves at a blinding pace.  In fact, I confess that I often prefer the slower, more tense and more psychological pace of a film like “Wrath.”  However, the film did not suffer from that awful CGI overload that some films have (eg Transformers)  that make it impossible to follow the action.  There is little I can say about the plot without giving away key plot points and surprises.  What I will say is that it was action-packed, visually interesting and funny.  The acting was par for a film like this, though (as everyone is saying) the breakout star here is Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s “Sherlock,” “Tinker Taylor Solider Spy”) as Harrison.  He brings a cool, intellectual creepiness to the role that is just right. This film is darker (both in theme and in production) than the last one and, while it was appropriate, I missed some of the bright colors and lighting of  “Star Trek,” which helped differentiate it from all the other films in the franchise.  This movie also felt a bit like a set up for every other film going forward.  The first one (of JJ Abrams’ series) changed the timeline and announced a new Trek universe to explore.  This one appeared to try and check off all the highlights from the original universe in rather rapid order (here’s a Klingon, there’s a tribble, that was a reference to the classic Trek episode, “Mudd’s Women,” was that shuttle craft named “Takei?”, oh, THAT Carol Marcus, I think they just mentioned Nurse Chapel, and on).  It felt like Abrams felt the need to wrap up the old universe to move on with the new.  The movie ends with the crew starting it’s fabled 5 year mission.  Much has been made of Abrams jumping ship to the Star Wars franchise.  I say, “good” (god knows, they need him) and he has left this one on pretty firm ground.

The Stories We Tell

May 20, 2013 at 9:57 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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No matter how small scale and uninteresting a documentary may appear to me initially, when it gets a 93% on Metacritic and its lowest score is 75%, it’s hard for me to say no.  This film is the story of the director, Sarah Polley, a 34-year old Canadian actress best known in the U.S. for lead roles in “Go,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and “The Sweet Hereafter.”  She wants to tell the story of her mother, who died of cancer two days after Polley’s 11th birthday.  However, this film (which took 5 years to make) goes in all sorts of interesting directions as she slowly discovers there was more to her mother than she had known.  The title of the film comes from the notion that our memories shape our realities and much has been made of the different (and sometimes contradictory) ways that various people remembered Polley’s mother.  However, I did not find that aspect of the film to be that surprising or that interesting; it wasn’t as though one person remembered her to be a saint and another to be a serial killer.  Rather, they all remembered the aspects of her they saw, which seems much like real life.  This, to me, was the film’s strength.  In it, I saw very real people being very human.  They were awkward and embarrassed on camera.  They hemmed and hawed as they dug into memories.  And they were all very genuine and present on screen as they tried to give their sister/daughter/ friend’s child whatever it was they thought she needed.  It was touching and really very sweet.  The critics I have read all make much of not revealing the twists the film took.  Because it is real life, I admit that they are hard to see coming but I don’t think that is where the real energy of the film lies.  And interestingly, none of the critics I read mentioned (perhaps didn’t notice?) what I thought was the biggest and most interesting twist of the film.  For those of you who see this film,  pay close attention to the closing credits.  As we were reading them, a shock ran through the audience that had the whole group abuzz.   Here is your spoiler alert: if you plan on seeing the film, don’t read any further as I think this should be a discovery made after the film. Still here?  Okay.  The film is made up, in almost equal parts, of current interviews of Polley’s family and family friends inter-spliced with old grainy super-8 images of the past.  These include her young mother, her parents meeting, early images of them in various plays (they were both actors), her young siblings, friends, others and a young Polley herself.  They add much to the atmosphere of the film and sometimes beautifully punctuate the voice over interview we are hearing.  The film would not be the same without them.  So, imagine the audience’s surprise when, in the closing credits, we get the list of actors who played all those parts.  As it turns out, all of those beautiful super-8 images were created by Polley for the film and everyone in them is an actor, some of whom look uncannily like the people they are playing.  It is a shocking effect that makes we consider seeing the whole film again.  Some might be offended by the “deception” but I thought it was a beautiful and creative use of artistic license that helped shape the whole film.  For me, it really lifted this documentary above the ordinary.

The Great Gatsby

May 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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Whether or not you will like Baz Luhrmann’s take on “The Great Gatsby” can probably be determined by your opinion of a thirty second scene: the moment we first lay eyes on Gatsby’s.  That scene is the movie at it’s core; did you find it to be ridiculously silly or glorious excess?  Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo + Juliet”) is a bit of a master of excess and it is on fine display here.  The film is so saturated in colors and lights and movement and sound that the story beneath all of that is almost lost.  Everything is stunning in Luhrmann’s 1929; even suffering is gorgeously rendered.  This is not to be dismissive at all.  Luhrmanh is a visual master and I think he is in great form here.  He has every visual detail just right, from the crazy scarlet bordello feel of the mistress’s apartment to the stunning way that everything Gatsby wears flatters him beautifully (gold to match his hair, blue to match his eyes, creams, tans and soft pinks to match his complexion).  For somebody as visual as I am, every scene was a treat to watch.  And Luhrmann fills them all with heavy meaning, the most effective of which was the eye doctor’s billboard (beautifully mimicking the famous book cover).  The problem is that the images are so overwhelming it is hard for the power of the story itself to rise above the din.  The images of excess and wealthy self-involvement, oblivious to growing stratification and an impending collapse, are all very resonant today.  But it is the images, not the story, that resonate.  Lost is the power of Fitzgerald’s work.  We hear it in brief snippets of his language but we can’t really see it in the characters because they are just props in the backdrop.  Luhrmann uses Fitzgerald’s work as the inspiration for a visual allegory of our times.  It’s beautiful and, at times, moving but it isn’t Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.”  Perhaps, if you want to make that film, ironically, you may need to make it a contemporary story of a man who sell drugs to build an empire to impress the woman he loves.  Then maybe the characters, their plight, their humanness will resonate with us.  In this film, they were all just beautiful splashes of color on a much larger canvas.

Mud

May 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Posted in 2013 | 1 Comment
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Young director, Jeff Nichols, brought us my favorite movie of 2011 (the brilliant “Take Shelter).  He’s now back with “Mud;” an evocative coming of age story set in rural Arkansas. Fourteen year old Ellis (Tye Sheriden) is a bit of a wide-eyed innocent living in a houseboat on a long river.  One day Ellis and his far more cynical friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living on a small island in the river.  Something about this man seems like trouble but Ellis is drawn to him, despite Neckbone’s good sense. The story flows at a pace as steady as the river’s, building it’s tensions while also showing us life in rural Arkansas.  Who Mud turns out to be and the story arc that surrounds him seems less important than the lessons Ellis learns along the way.  This is a film about love in all it’s forms: familial love, the love of friends, romantic love, the way love fails and, ultimately, the need to be loved.  Ellis is an innocent who learns a lot about what love is and what it isn’t and we watch that knowledge compete with what he wants love to be.  This is a film with action and danger and tension but it is really a sweet film about growing up.  Sheriden (“Tree of Life”) does a beautiful job of playing sensitive, idealistic Ellis and Lofland (in his first film) also shines as his more jaded friend.  McConaughey does sterling work and when you compare this performance to two recent ones (“Magic Mike” and “Killer Joe”), it really gives you a sense of his range as an actor.  The cast was rounded out with fantastic performances by Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, each character displaying love (in all its strengths and weaknesses) in different ways.  From start to finish, this was a lovely film.

Blancanieves

May 6, 2013 at 11:37 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This absolutely lavish film is my favorite of the year so far.  Set in and around Seville, Spain, it retells the Snow White story through the lens of a 1920s bullfighting family.  True to the period, the film is shot in black and white and is silent.  Now I use silent loosely because it does have all sorts of sounds (footsteps, hands clapping, horns blowing) but no words are spoken and all dialogue is shown on the screen in silent-film style.  In addition, much of the acting is done with the exaggerated facial expressions and mouth movements of classic silent films.  That might sound like a trial but it isn’t.   What we have is a lush world captured beautifully in black and white; cinematographer Kiko de la Rica uses light and shadows to stunning effect, creating depth and mood and radiating light in a way that color films cannot.  In addition, the musical score (written for the film by Alfonso de Vilallonga) is at times energetic, angry, deeply mournful or funny.  It’s beautiful and perfectly matched to each scene.  One might legitimately question the point of retelling Snow White, which is after all not the most  emotionally complex of stories.  However, I was surprised at the range of emotions that were so deeply expressed, especially in a silent film.  It was genuinely funny, sometimes sinister and deeply sad in parts.  “Blancanieves” ultimately did what I ask of any film, it drew me in and took me on a journey that was at times silly, at times haunting and always beautiful.

Iron Man Three

May 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

In the growing pantheon of superhero movies, there are far more bad or mediocre ones (“Daredevil,” “Green Lantern,” the “Fantastic Four” franchise, various Hulks and X-Mens) than there are good ones (which list, interestingly, includes mostly Batman movies).  Iron Man Three belongs in the pretty good category.  Grounded in a less supernatural universe than many characters in the genre, Iron Man is more accessible and down-to-earth.  This is part of his appeal.  I think the other part comes in Robert Downey Jr’s jaded, wise-ass delivery.  In his hands, this character is simply fun to watch.  The story is as ludicrous, convoluted and silly as most superhero films are and the special effects are just like what we see in 10 films a summer.  What makes this film rise above the pack is RDJ’s banter with whomever he is playing against.  In what looks like an effort to give him more opportunity to sling those one liners (and probably to add some vulnerability to the character), he spends far less time in the armor than I had anticipated.  It’s a bit of a risky move in a summer superhero film to reduce the amount of superhero-ing on the screen but it works, adding more tension to big scenes and also lending itself to more of the banter that is this films real charm.  The rest of the actors do a fine job and, in fact, Ben Kingsley is a pure delight to watch, stealing all of his scenes.  He was clearly loving every minute of that role.  Purists be warned, the film takes license with some classic characters in some significant ways.  However, it also managed to provide a couple of completely unexpected plot twists.  Stick it out through the credits; like all Marvel films, this one has an ending that is worth the wait.

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