Sunday, October 19, 2014

Birdman of Steel

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: St. Vincent

As everything from Groundhog Day to The Life Aquatic to Wild Things proves, there are few greater pleasures in the movies than watching Bill Murray play a jerk, but unfortunately Murray’s irascible next-door neighbor arrives in St. Vincent pre-redeemed. The movie is so eager to reassure us that Vincent’s gruff exterior is hiding a big ol’ teddy bear, that the script never develops any teeth. Sure, the script says, Vincent may drink to excess, run up big gambling debts and generally treat everyone like garbage, but see how he struggles to pay for the inpatient care for his Alzheimer’s afflicted wife? And did you notice his Vietnam medals? Plus, look at how he dotes on the pregnant over-the-hill Russian prostitute he hires (Naomi Watts of all people). At least other redemption-of-an-asshole movies like As Good As It Gets and the similar, and far superior, About a Boy have the sense to enjoy letting the protagonist be a genuine prick for a while before they set about the business of rehabilitating him...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Monday, October 13, 2014

NYFF Review: Foxcatcher

If it’s true that great storytelling unfolds in a way that is both surprising and inevitable, then Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher appears at first glance to be missing half of the equation. The most surprising thing about the spare script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman is how shocking it isn’t. We can see the impending tragedy coming from miles away. Only the film’s characters seem blind to the descending shadows. Tremendous piles of money have a way of obscuring vision like that.
Based on the real events leading up to a 1996 murder, Foxcatcher’s first images show the incredibly rich at play with their pets, sitting atop thoroughbred horses, surrounded by hunting dogs, etc. It’s appropriate for a film about the unfathomably wealthy John du Pont’s attempts to keep champion wrestlers Mark and David Schultz as his own personal possessions

Monday, October 6, 2014

NYFF Review: Mr. Turner

When a film like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner comes along you find yourself wishing you could take back all the “great cinematography” praise you tossed around so cavalierly on other films so that the words can carry more weight now that you really need them. Ideally, so far in 2014, one would have only applied the same praise to Darius Khondji’s work on The Immigrant. OK, yes, Under the Skin’s Daniel Landin also. It’s been an exceptional year.

Not content to merely display his paintings, Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope manage to permeate the air with the aura of J. M.W. Turner’s art. Some of the film’s images produced audible gasps at the screening I attended. The glory of the visuals grant Leigh and company the freedom to dispense with the many of the usual biopic clichés since we understand so much about Turner’s passion just by looking at the screen. Mike Leigh’s latest simulates what it might be like to see the world through the eyes of the great painter. This element alone makes Mr. Turner essential viewing…

Sunday, October 5, 2014

NYFF Review: Jauja

Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja does so many things that critics complain films don’t do, I feel obligated to love it. It has a rich sense of atmosphere. It’s thoughtful. Alonso composes his frames beautifully, and he has the patience to hold on them until every last ounce of meaning has been wrung from the image. It does all this and more, so why was it that by the halfway point I was hoping the projector would break down so I could bolt for the exit?
I think it has to do with the fact that Jauja is made with near total disregard for the audience, and I don’t mean its glacial pacing. If a film is going to be this impenetrable, in fairness, it should contain enough ideas to occupy the audience’s mind while the action on screen is making the slower parts of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry look like Jurassic Park. Jauja contains ideas enough to support your average short film...

NYFF Review: Two Days, One Night

The experience of watching the Dardenne brothers latest critically adored Cannes hit, Two Days, One Night, brings home just how conditioned we are to expect our protagonists to be active and fearless. We are not used to heroes that need to be pushed and prodded to stand up for themselves. Our heroes tend to plunge into conflict with nary a second thought. Marion Cotillard’s Sandra is not one of those characters. When Sandra awakes one morning to a phone call informing her that she has lost her job at a company that makes solar panels, her first impulse is to take it lying down. Literally. On an upswing after what we gather is a nasty struggle with depression, Sandra crawls back into bed resigned to let her sickness swallow her whole this time.
It becomes clear that management, in a move brilliant in its craven cowardice, had given Sandra’s coworkers the choice of keeping Sandra or keeping their bonuses. On top of which, whispers were spread that Sandra was going to be let go no matter what, so it’s no surprise when the vote is a lopsided 14 to 2 in favor of firing Sandra and keeping bonuses. When Sandra’s husband and friends compel her to protest the underhanded way this was carried out, her boss allows for a second vote after the weekend, comfortable in the expectation that convincing people to sacrifice their bonuses is a fool's errand. And even if it weren’t, the potential humiliation of having to beg her coworkers to spare her is a thought less appealing than poverty...

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TAK3N Bits

Monday, September 29, 2014

NYFF Review: Whiplash

Terence Fletcher is a notoriously demanding music teacher whose go-to story is about how Charlie Parker got a cymbal thrown at him by drumming great Jo Jones when Parker choked onstage at a jazz club as a teenager. To hear Fletcher tell it, that public humiliation was the impetus for Parker to dedicate himself to his craft and become the jazz legend known forever as Bird. Knowing this about Fletcher, it’s little surprise that freshman Andrew Neyman’s gets a metal chair thrown at his head for the crime of being off tempo on his first day on drums as a member of Fletcher’s elite studio band. 

To be clear, that’s thrown at his head, not near his head. Damien Chazelle’s blistering Sundance smash Whiplash makes it clear that this is not the story of a hard-assed but wise teacher who applies tough love to coax the best out of his students. Fletcher’s behavior crosses the line quickly and often. His “lessons” are often little more than playing interrupted by slurs, slaps, and cruel mind games. It’s as if he learned to teach by watching Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry monologue on a loop… 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: Tracks

When people ask Robyn Davidson why she intends to trek across 1700 miles of punishing Australian desert with only four camels and her dog as company, she dodges the question or falls back on clichés like “Why not?” But even if Davidson is reluctant to spell out her motivation, director John Curran manages to make Robyn’s actions clear by tuning in the camera to her state of mind. In Tracks, the true story of Davidson’ 1977 journey, people are most often framed as mindless, swarming groups which descend on her, shattering her solitude. Journalists, tourists, even friends and family. They are all mobs. The sound design makes little attempt to separate their dialogue into discernable lines, letting them blend into a pack of chattering hyenas. 
Having effectively put the audience on Robyn’s wavelength having her explain herself in words would be redundant. We too are ready to spend some time limited to the company of camels.
The obvious comparison for Tracks is to Into the Wild, the major difference being that where Into the Wild showed Christopher McCandless to be blithely overconfident, even reckless, in the face of nature, Tracks shows Robyn as clear-eyed about the dangers of her expedition. She has done the calculation and simply decided that, for her, it is worth the risk

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: The Guest

Watching Adam Wingard’s The Guest lets the viewer experience what it would be like to fish an unexpected masterwork out of a bargain bin full of trashy VHS horror movies. The film is a superior example of what Rodriguez and Tarantino attempted with Grindhouse, at once a glorious homage to the horror schlock of the late 70’s and 80’s and a skillful subversion of the same. Wingard’s movie walks this tricky tonal tightrope with swagger, oozing stylistic flash and scored with a soundtrack of pseudo-80's synth you will want to make out with. I think it’s safe to say The Guest is going to achieve cult status pretty much the instant the light from the projector hits movie screens.

The plot could be easily summarized as Bourne meets Halloween, but that glib pitch meeting capsule would scarcely hint at the layers of wit built into this movie…

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Genius Idea