REVIEW: Jodorowsky’s Dune

9 07 2014

Jodrowsky's DuneCannes Film Festival – Director’s Fortnight, 2013

Is it possible that one of the most influential forces in the history of cinema as we know it was a film that wasn’t actually made?  That’s the case made by director Frank Pavich in his documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” a celebration of a landmark in science-fiction cinema that never left pre-production.  And darned if we aren’t educated, entertained, and slightly awe-struck by the time the film ends.

The popular novel “Dune” ultimately did meet the silver screen in David Lynch’s 1984 cult classic.  But that would pale in comparison the version Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexican master of the surreal, was planning in the mid-1970s.  Involving everyone from Pink Floyd to Orson Welles and even Salvador Dalí, his take on “Dune” would certainly be unlike anything the movies had ever seen.

But rather than mourning the midnight movie that could have been, Pavich uses his documentary as a platform for celebrating the boundless creativity of Jodorowsky and all the obstacles such a singular vision can create.  It’s undeniably fun to watch Jodorowsky interviewed about all his grandiose plans, and such energy serves as a wonderful reminder of how blissful it is to watch a director revel in the joy of moviemaking.

Pavich also takes care to show us all the ways in which Jodorowsky’s unfinished project trickled out into the industry and popped up in several landmark films.  Featuring appearances by acclaimed filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn (who dedicated his Cannes 2013 entry “Only God Forgives” to Jodorwosky) along with rabidly zealous journalists such as Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny, “Jodorowsky’s Dune” makes for one heck of a party for the cinema.  Its allure is practically impossible to resist if you love movies.  B+3stars

REVIEWS: Nymphomaniac, Vols. I and II

8 07 2014


There was understandably a lot of talk surrounding the alleged pornographic content of Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” a two-part, four hour opus on human sexuality.  It got plenty of coverage online – thank you, always horny Internet users who fall for the first click-bait title about sex – and I honestly was never quite sure if the actors were participating in live acts or not.

But I sat through the entire film (albeit in two sittings) and hardly found the explicit content to be the most off-putting thing about it.

In fact, it rather made sense for a movie like this to show sexuality so openly since it is literally about all the complications and eccentricities of the libido.  That doesn’t make it easy to watch, nor does it make portraying sex acts artistic.  It does, however, give them some sense of place (unlike the rather unnecessarily extended scenes in “Blue is the Warmest Color“).

No, what made “Nymphomaniac” tough to watch and downright insufferable at times is Von Trier’s seemingly never-ending supply of pretentious commentary.  He structures the film as a conversation about the travails of sex addict Joe, played with dogged dedication by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with professor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard).  As they walk through her life, each provides intellectual commentary on the very nature of sexuality.

Von Trier clearly has a lot to say, and his appraisals can be quite enlightening.  Yet he writes the film in such a haughty, overblown tone that it can’t help but get quite aggravating at a certain point.  Von Trier supplies endless metaphors and then unpacks them completely rather than letting us explore them.  The experience of “Nymphomaniac” is akin to locking yourself in a room for four hours with Von Trier, who greets you from his ivory tower mentality with the exhortation, “sit down and let me educate you about sex because I know everything about it!”

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REVIEW: Bad Words

7 07 2014

Bad WordsJason Bateman has long been saddled with the reputation as a go-to guy for playing the uptight, no-nonsense straight man in comedy.  After having finally watched “Arrested Development,” I can see why he got typecast – he’s quite skilled at it.  But too much of a good thing can get quite boring, and he’s rarely given a great supporting cast to whom he can react.

It appears that in order to get a different kind of role, Bateman had to step behind the camera himself for “Bad Words.”  His performance recalls two others in films that also began with the same word: Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa” and Cameron Diaz in “Bad Teacher.”  Bateman tackles a character, Guy Trilby, who is more or less irredeemably rotten to the core, save the one classic written-in soft spot that gets exposed over the course of the film.

Guy exploits a loophole in a national spelling bee – he never graduated from middle school – and enters himself into competition at the ripe old age of 40.  His presence alone angers parents, but they’d probably put a bullet through his head if they knew the shenanigans he pulled to fluster their kids.  Stuck in arrested development as an 11-year-old bully, Guy ruthlessly humiliates vulnerable and insecure teenagers into making mistakes at the microphone.

Bateman and writer Andrew Dodge clearly intend these moments to be funny, but all too often, “Bad Words” seems too far away from any sort of moral compass.  Rather than eliciting laughs, they activate our sympathy and pity for the kids Guy is picking on.  It’s not unlike the feeling I had watching “The Wolf of Wall Street,” wondering how I could possibly find humor and levity at the expense of someone else’s livelihood.

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REVIEW: The Sacrament

6 07 2014

The SacramentIt’s hard to think of any stylistic development of the past five years with quite the impact of found footage.  Once “Paranormal Activity” arrived out of nowhere with a resounding bang, it seemed like its DIY cinema verité aesthetic could be found wherever you looked.  From cop films (“End of Watch“) to superhero movies (“Chronicle“) and even teen party flicks (“Project X“), everyone was doing it – perhaps as a cost-cutting measure, or maybe just to fall in line with the newest trend.

Yet very few of these movies have actually committed to the style as the main vehicle for storytelling.  Ti West, on the other hand, employs it as more than a half-hearted gimmick in “The Sacrament.”  Under his direction, the camera becomes our eyes and ears, our only means of accessing the events of the narrative.  West’s dedication pays off in spades as his film constitutes one of the most absorbing and frightening experiences of the year.

I do wish West hadn’t been quite so beholden to recreating the Jonestown mass sacrifice (that’s the one with the Kool-Aid) since his command the technique creates a truly ominous atmosphere.  He doesn’t entirely recreate the famous cult settlement, but West does little more than essentially plant it in the present day.

The camera through which we experience “The Sacrament” comes courtesy of Vice reporters Jake and Sam (Joe Swanberg and AJ Bowen), who join colleague Patrick (Kentucker Audley) as he goes to check the safety of his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz) at the mysterious commune Eden Parish.  The film begins with their extended journalistically-oriented overview of the group’s calm facade lasting nearly 45 minutes … but then the Vice team more or less causes the collapse of the Parish’s fragile community.

West, in the final hour, lets loose into an absolutely nightmarish terror.  “The Sacrament” quickly and efficiently shows the allure of a charismatic leader like Eden Parish’s “Father” (Gene Jones) and how quickly he can self-destruct the edifice he has built.  It’s not redefining the subgenre of cult horror, but West crafts one scarily good movie that ought to give anyone a potent fright.  B+3stars

REVIEW: They Came Together

5 07 2014

They Came TogetherGenres naturally go through cycles, and right now, the romantic comedy is in a bit of a slump.  When I started writing this blog nearly five years ago, it was riding high with smash hits like “The Proposal” and “The Ugly Truth.”  If you look at the market now, there hasn’t really been a rom-com hit since 2011′s “Crazy Stupid Love,” largely because those kinds of movies just aren’t being made.

Why exactly they have gone out of fashion so dramatically is anyone’s guess.  It’s likely a combination of many factors, but two films point out some of the reasons why no one is rushing to finance “28 Dresses.”  Back in 2009, “(500) Days of Summer” took a revisionist angle on the genre, pointing out many romantic comedy conventions that needed to be reworked in order to be more in touch with the audience.

And now, in 2014, “They Came Together” marks the point where the genre’s hallmarks are so recognizable that they can be mercilessly sent up in an unrelenting satire.  David Wain, the great mind behind “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Role Models,” dismantles the romantic comedy with confidence and pinpoint accuracy.

His script lays bare all the subtext that most of us blindly accept when we encounter a standard genre pic, pointing out everything from the stereotypes of the characters (clumsy girl, non-threateningly masculine guy) to the role of New York City (like another character).  “They Came Together” is at its best when Wain performs his point-by-point deconstruction of all the clichés that normally trap the genre, due largely in part to how wonderfully Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler can cut up while sending up the trademarks.

“They Came Together” winds up coming slightly undone, however, by the sophomoric silliness that fills the moments that aren’t so brutally self-aware.  Wain is usually quite clever with his comedy (the notable exception being “Wanderlust“), and here, he drops to the level of Seth MacFarlane in “Family Guy” or “Ted.”  It’s funny on occasion but wildly inconsistent overall with one joke bombing and the next hitting the sweet spot.  Thankfully, it never quite stoops to the level of the movies it lambasts, but Wain might have had one of the most spectacular spoofs of all time on his hands had he just stuck to the more high-minded humor.  B-2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 4, 2014)

4 07 2014

sTabloidOn the occasion of the United States’ 238th birthday, why not celebrate a lesser-trumpeted American fascination? (Not that freedom, liberty, and equality aren’t nice.). This is a value we share with pretty much the whole world, and we might have even invented it.

The concept to which I’m referring, if you haven’t caught on by now, is celebrity culture and our seemingly insatiable desire for every salacious detail of their lives. Incisive documentarian Errol Morris explored this predilection in his 2011 film “Tabloid,” a compulsively entertaining tale that played out in cheap, gossipy newspapers in the 1970s. It gets my pick as the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because of the way it provides non-stop ridiculous fun even while posing some peculiarly perplexing issues to ponder.

It was described as “a story with something for everyone,” and they weren’t kidding.  Joyce McKinney’s rise to tabloid infamy had all the bizarre elements of a Hollywood movie: sex, cults, brainwashing, kidnapping … and maybe love, depending on who you ask.  After falling in love with the devoutly Mormon man Kurt, Joyce refuses to let their relationship be torn apart by the customary mission.  She organizes a team to go extract him from England, and crazy hijinks ensue that give Joyce an unusually bright-shining 15 minutes of fame.

Morris lets McKinney tell her own story on her terms, but he certainly doesn’t take it at face value.  He amasses a whole host of other subjects with their own ties to the events, be they participants or the tabloid reporters that made her and then destroyed her.  “Tabloid” provides a fascinating tussle for the truth; we’re never quite sure who to believe or trust.  Everyone has their own motive for spinning the narrative their own way.  Who can say if we’ll ever know what actually happened or why people acted in the way they did.

The film clips along thanks to Morris’ quite literally ripped-from-the-headlines aesthetic.  (Newspaper clippings abound, dispersed throughout the interviews and the archival footage.)  For people like me who weren’t alive in that era, “Tabloid” serves as a reminder that E! and the reality TV phenomenon didn’t just come out of nowhere; our culture has a rich history of using whatever the predominant news media is to elevate the average citizen to superhuman status only to bring them right back down to earth.

REVIEW: Snowpiercer

3 07 2014

SnowpiercerDirector Bong Joon Ho, like many cinephiles, is a big fan of Tilda Swinton.  And at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he tracked her down and professed his admiration at a brunch.  Afterwards, they mutually decided they would work together on something in the future.

Joon Ho was in the process of writing “Snowpiercer,” and he feared there would not be a part for Swinton in the script.  But then he had a stroke of genius: he would cast Swinton, no stranger to playing some rather gonzo roles, as the authoritative Minister Mason.  This part, however, was initially written for a man.

Swinton gets made-down quite amusingly by the hair and makeup department, pairing her with a drab wig and some nasty dentures.  She’s not her usually chic self, but Swinton isn’t identifiably masculine, either.  Joon Ho doesn’t change any of the personal pronouns in the script, so Mason is still referred to as a he.

Swinton’s performance, then, is not one that doesn’t choose a gender but seems to transcend our understanding of the binary altogether.  As a whole, “Snowpiercer” relishes in this spirit of breaking boundaries.  It can’t necessarily be tied down to one genre, constantly surprising us with each turn.

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REVIEW: Begin Again

2 07 2014

Begin AgainJohn Carney’s “Begin Again” was first screened for audiences under the title “Can A Song Save Your Life?”  An interesting question, to be sure, but perhaps not the right one … or at least not the one preoccupying most viewers.  Their biggest question is (or ought to be), can these songs save this movie?

The answer is, well, not exactly.  “Begin Again” flaunts some pleasant ditties, including a few from Maroon 5′s Adam Levine (great for boosting soundtrack sales) and several from the surprisingly smooth pipes of Keira Kinghtley.  But they are rather breezy and generic tunes, not quite the game-changing classics Carney and his film make them out to be.

While I’m not a music critic (and do not intend to masquerade as one), I do feel that I can comment on how the tracks are incorporated into the film with relative authority.  And in “Begin Again,” the songs play out rather like music videos, with the one exception of Knightley’s strikingly beautiful opening number about isolation in the Big Apple.  Furthermore, they never reveal anything about the characters participating in their creation (see the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” for a masterclass).

These songs reflect the larger issue with “Begin Again,” which is that it provides a surface-level treatment of just about everything it touches.  Carney occasionally proffers a profound musing on music, both its art and its commerce, but never really explores them fully.

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REVIEW: The Immigrant

1 07 2014

immigrant_noquote_finalCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

Over a year ago, I had the distinct honor to attend a panel in memory of my hero in the realm of film criticism, the late Roger Ebert, in Cannes.  His widow, Chaz, was in attendance a little over a month after his passing.  We all took a “500 Thumbs Up for Roger” picture (if you like a good Where’s Waldo puzzle, try to find me in this picture) and signed a book letting Chaz know how much her husband meant to everyone who cherishes film.

But it was not the words that I left her that mattered that day; rather, it was the words she left me and everyone else in attendance.  Kicking off the panel, she remarked, “Roger said that the cinema expands your imagination.  And when it’s done well, what it will do is allow the individual to be transported beyond linear boundaries and to take you to a world that you hadn’t seen before and allow you inside and outside to become a better person.”

People that take the time to write seriously about these illusionary worlds of light, shadow, and pixel have most likely achieved this exhilarating narrative transport.  It’s a difficult and thus extremely rare feat for a film to pull off.  Yet the sensation feeds the soul in such a sublime manner that it’s worth seeking out even if it means wading through seemingly endless mediocrity.

By year’s end, I manage to let the awards hype delude myself into thinking I have experienced this transcendent feeling multiple times.  In actuality, however, these little miracles only occur every few years or so.  I’m overjoyed to report that James Gray’s “The Immigrant” is one such film.

Most movies nowadays return me to the same spot from which I departed.  This masterpiece, on the other hand, picked me up at one place and deposited me at a higher ground.  The story of “The Immigrant” alone left me feeling spiritually enriched.  The complete package assembled by producer, writer, and director Gray left me renewed and reaffirmed in the power of the cinema.  I remain so stunned in slack-jawed awe at this exquisitely beautiful work that few words can fully capture my strong sentiments.

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REVIEW: Like Father, Like Son

30 06 2014

Like Father Like SonThe title of the film “Like Father, Like Son” might lead you to think its as banal and thoughtless as the clichéd phrase from which it derives its name.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth about the movie, however.  Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s masterfully observed and delicately realized familial drama is one of the most thought-provoking films I have ever had the privilege to see.

Hirokazu begins with a somewhat well-established premise of nature vs. nature, but there’s nothing familiar about where he ultimately takes us in “Like Father, Like Son.”  The lives of two families, the wealthy Nonomiyas and the working-class Saikis, are upended when it is revealed that their six-year-old sons were switched in the hospital.

Where to go from there presents the first of many wrenching dilemmas faced by the characters.  As their comfortable patterns of life are shattered, everyone affected is forced to rethink what exactly it means to be a parent and a child.  To be fair, it’s more about what it means to be a father, although that shouldn’t preclude any gender from grappling with the questions raised by the film.

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REVIEW: The Lunchbox

29 06 2014

The LunchboxLondon Film Festival, 2013

Could a film possibly be a romantic comedy if the two leads don’t end up together … or if they never even meet?  Because that’s precisely the film that “The Lunchbox” is.  And darned if it didn’t make my heart flutter.

Ritesh Batra’s first film is absolutely disarming as it reminds us the power that unexpected relationships can wield.  He doesn’t hold back the sentimentality, allowing us rich emotional connection with the characters, yet Batra does not cave to its pressures for perfect resolution.

“The Lunchbox” is nothing if not honest, and we feel all the more enriched by his sidestepping of the gushy genre cliches.  In fact, the film recalls an indie-fied “You’ve Got Mail,” only replacing the capitalist undertones from “There Will Be Blood” with the foodie fix of “Julie & Julia.”

It all begins when a frustrated housewife, Nimrat Kaur’s charming Ila, tries to enliven her tired marriage by making her husband an especially tasty lunch that he can enjoy on his break.  While much of “The Lunchbox” reflects more globally shared feelings and frustrations, the dabbawalas system of couriers bring meals from wives at home to their husbands at work marks a facet that’s distinctly Mumbai.  Yet on this fateful day, the dabbawala does not deliver Ila’s lunchbox into the correct hands.

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REVIEW: The Unknown Known

28 06 2014

The Unknown KnownMost great documentaries about political malfeasance features countless interviews with academics and reporters, the majority of whom are extremely knowledgeable about the topic.  Yet rarely do you see direct participants sit down and talk with filmmakers about their role in the events.  (We can thank their cautious PR people, worried of a negative soundbite in a nonstop news cycle.)

None of the big names in the financial crisis, on Wall Street or in Washington, sat down for “Inside Job.”  (Prominent decliners are even listed on the film’s website.)  SeaWorld didn’t talk to the makers of “Blackfish.”  Yet for some odd reason, Donald Rumsfeld actually faced off with documentarian Errol Morris in an extensive interview that forms the backbone of “The Unknown Known.”  Yes, the man with his hands in the cookie jar during events from Watergate to the war in Iraq agreed to sit down with a documentarian whose work has literally gotten someone off Death Row.

The very fact that “The Unknown Known” exists is dumbfounding in and of itself.  Rumsfeld is no idiot, and he surely must have realized that the film was not going to be some puff piece to exonerate him in the annals of history.  In fact, it was more likely to be a hatchet job than anything.

Morris, however, does not indulge all those who would love nothing more than to have the documentary serve as an unofficial trial for war crimes.  He largely lets Rumsfeld spin his own narrative, occasionally interjecting with objections or pointed questions.  At least from what we see, Morris and Rumsfeld never engage in an all-out shouting match like you’d see on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

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REVIEW: Obvious Child

27 06 2014

Obvious ChildRiverRun Film Festival

If Woody Allen and Joan Rivers ever had a love child, it would probably sound a whole lot like Jenny Slate’s Donna Stern in “Obvious Child.”  This stand-up comedian proves to be a magnet for unfortunate events – losing her job and her boyfriend in rapid succession – and handles it with indefatigable humor, both macabre and self-deprecating.  Slate refashions a best friend archetype into a leading lady, and it works marvelously.

Donna might not work quite as well as a character had she not appeared in a film with the refreshing candor of writer/director Gillian Robespierre.  Pleasant interactions at a bar lead Donna into the bedroom with the charming Max (Jake Lacy, recognizable to fans of the last season of “The Office”) … but what grows inside her isn’t love or desire for a relationship.

It’s a baby, one thing Donna knows she can’t handle in her crazy life.  So she does what plenty of women across the country do: signs up to get an abortion.  In the spirit of stand-up, Donna and the film tackle the issue head-on.  She even incorporates it into her routine on stage, not to poke fun at it but to use humor as a vehicle to really explore the way we feel about abortion.  The real injustice, Robespierre seems to argue, is the way we traipse around the issue when we talk about it.

“Obvious Child” plays out like a feminist take on “Knocked Up,” another film that explores the consequences of unplanned pregnancy with poignant honesty.  All the characters speak with such refreshing candor, particularly about what it means to be a woman both physically and emotionally.  As Donna’s confidante and roommate Nellie, Gaby Hoffman brings down the house with her free spirit and untamed tongue.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 27, 2014)

27 06 2014

I Killed My MotherXavier Dolan has had quite a run over the past few years.  This May, the 25-year-old wunderkind not only cracked the official competition slate at Cannes, but also won the Jury Prize.  Just five years ago, his debut feature “I Killed My Mother” announced his arrival on the international scene at the Cannes sidebar Director’s Fortnight.

Thought it took that film a whopping four years to wash up on American shores, it’s an incredibly accomplished first feature with the confidence that it takes many filmmakers years to develop.  “I Killed My Mother” is visually daring, emotionally satisfying, and narratively compelling.  As such, it is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Despite what the title might have you think, there is no murder in the film.  That’s not to say, however, that Dolan’s angsty 16-year-old character Hubert doesn’t contemplate offing his mother a great deal.  She pushes his buttons just as he pushes hers, resulting in plenty of bickering and nasty quarrels.

It’s not just a rant against mothers, though.  Dolan’s film contemplates the very root of mother-son tensions, the subject of stories for millennia.  “I Killed My Mother” feels like a courtroom drama at times as we weigh who is culpable for all the drama occurring before our eyes.  The answer isn’t ever entirely clear as we’re presented with a dilemma resembling the chicken-and-egg question.  Which came first?

Anne Dorval, playing the eponymous matriach Chantale, provides the pitch-perfect performance for the inquisitive Dolan.  She channels the essence of the matron nicely in the way she tries to provide tough love for her defiant son.  But as hard as she tries to provide consistent care, she lapses as all humans do.  Dorval’s deeply humane portrait of a woman torn by these two forces makes “I Killed My Mother” all the more fascinating to watch unfold.

While Dorval steals the movie on screen, it’s Dolan who commands it off screen.  His remarkable aesthetic flair mixes various styles of filmmaking deftly, giving “I Killed My Mother” an appropriately fractured feel.  The form matches the content remarkably well, for what better way to tell a story about conflicting feelings than with conflicting methods of presentation?  This has all the makings of a masterful film for any director; it’s merely compounded by the fact that it’s a debut for Dolan, who couldn’t even legally buy alcohol in the United States when he made it.  (He’s Canadian, anyways, so that fact doesn’t really matter.)

REVIEW: Happy Christmas

26 06 2014

Happy ChristmasJoe Swanberg had a modest little hit on his hands last summer with “Drinking Buddies,” a more mainstream-friendly comedy.  And thanks to all the stars he packed into the film (and thus the cover art), it seems to have found some nice legs on Netflix.

Happy Christmas” seems unlikely to win over those new fans once more, and it may not even wholly satisfy those more tolerant of the mumblecore style.  Swanberg shows his talents, sure, but the whole enterprise just feels slight and disposable.

It’s a slice of not particularly interesting life that gets in and out within 82 minutes.  During that runtime, the film doesn’t really have much to say, either.  Anna Kendrick gets to have some fun as Jenny, a hapless twentysomething who moves in with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his wife, the sometimes-writer Kelly (Melanie Lynskey).

She brings headache and heartache along with her, as plenty of our own family members are capable of doing.  This familiar narrative device yields little new to ponder or even laugh about.  Unwrapping “Happy Christmas” is like opening the gift from that random aunt of yours … and realizing it’s the same thing you got from her last year.

Though the film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, that’s not to say it doesn’t boast some great facets.  The “cool girl,” seemingly down-to-earth Kendrick is a perfect fit for Swanberg speak.  She stammers like a natural, fumbling over “like” just as any of us would and reacts to her surroundings with startling authenticity.  Kendrick brings the honesty and fun to “Happy Christmas” where everyone else just seems kind of dour and depressed.  At least we can say we spent some time basking in her aura of awesomeness.  B-2stars


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