Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review: Frank

The audience can be forgiven if it assumes that Lenny Abarahamson’s Frank will be another cookie cutter indie quirkfest. The title character certainly seems at first glance like a contrived package of screenwriting conceits. Played by an actor we have to take on faith is Michael Fassbender, Frank is an artist who, despite a recent stay in a mental institution, still wears at all times a beach ball-sized fiberglass head with a blank Howdy Doody face. Frank is the lead singer of an avant-garde band with an unpronounceable name (the Soronprfbs) and an unlistenable sound. When they perform it looks like five people having a synchronized nervous breakdown. With this shooting gallery of easy targets we sit back and wait for the movie to rain down mockery on its characters, sort of like a Napoleon Dynamite for hipster musicians.
The great surprise of Frank is that it avoids the easy jokes, aiming for something altogether more interesting. Abrahamson accepts these bizarre characters at face value and follows them with thoughtfulness and an open mind, often to funny places, sometimes to bracingly dark ones. It’s a tricky tonal balancing act, but the film rarely steps wrong. In passing up the cheap shots, Frank finds unexpected depth beneath the weirdness

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: The Giver

It’s an amusing irony that Phillip Noyce’s film of Lois Lowry’s beloved middle-school staple The Giver feels like an afterthought following the recent glut of Young Adult adaptations. It was Lowry’s vision of dystopia which helped launch the army of teenage Chosen Ones currently clogging multiplexes nationwide. Now, not only is The Giver late to the party, but the richly imagined worlds of Lowry’s literary descendants have left her story feeling undercooked. I can’t imagine teenage audiences who have spent the past few years steeped in the sprawling, detailed insanity of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books will be rapt with attention watching Jeff Bridges shambling around his library, triggering the occasional lame stock footage montage meant to portray humanity in all its myriad wonders.

Noyce’s film version might have had a fighting shot if it had tapped into the elemental power of the story’s spare allegory, but alas, even with a plotline of this simplicity, The Giver can’t make the pieces fit. The logic begins to fall apart right from the opening narration. We are told that this is a society where all the highs and lows of humanity have been wiped away and people live in a serene state of medicated blankness. Everyone strolls around grinning like they lost a fight with a body snatcher. We meet our hero Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, a monument to blandness) on the day of the great Ceremony where he and his two equally personality-free friends are to receive their lifetime job assignments. Yet no sooner does the narration tell us that this world is free from competition and envy than we hear the trio chatting about how they hope they get a great job, crossing their fingers that they don’t get put on the janitorial staff. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t this indicate that they are A) competitive and B) envious.

Get used to this confusion...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lauren Bacall Animated

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: Get On Up

The opening scenes of Get On Up are so loose and dynamic they give the viewer reason to hope that Tate Taylor’s take on James Brown’s life story sidestepped the pitfalls that trap so many musical biopics. The film shuffles back and forth through Brown’s life with such breathless energy it’s as if the screenplay itself is possessed by the spirit of Soul Brother No. 1. It’s exhilarating, but the thrill dissipates quickly when it becomes clear that underneath the exploded chronology and the surface razzmatazz, Taylor’s film is operating from the same old biopic playbook. It turns out Get On Up is as square as the squarest prestige Oscar grab, right down to the dumb trope of pinning all of the star’s self-destructive behavior to a childhood trauma.

With the hyper-kinetic structure, not to mention the wall-to-wall James Brown music (which remains irresistible) it’s easy to miss the fact that the Get On Up never musters much insight into its subject. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business was the next logical choice to get the Walk the Line treatment, so here we all are. The script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth opts for an all-of-the-above approach that skips from topic to topic without ever really coming to a point. Here’s James Brown performing in Vietnam. Here’s an unknown Brown stealing an open mic night from Little Richard. Here’s a past-his-prime Brown stoned out of his gourd, waving a shotgun around while wearing a hideous green sweat suit. No one will miss the boring old three-act arc, but the portrait of the man never emerges from the mosaic…

Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: A Most Wanted Man

Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man builds to a single moment where the main character, G√ľnther Bachmann, head of a modern day German counter-terrorism spy ring, comes face to face with a devastating realization. Corbijn fixes the camera on him and lets the moment hang there wordlessly. You can practically see the ramifications shake the character to the core of who he is and what he believed about his place in the world
To let the whole movie live or die on a single moment like that is a high risk/high reward gambit. The fact that Gunther is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman should give you a clue as to why the filmmaker was confident his lead actor could drive it home with the power it required. After Hoffman’s heartbreaking death at the age of forty-six the temptation to go for broke in singing his praises would exist no matter what his final significant performance, but it turns out no hyperbole is required. Hoffman’s last starring role is one of his best. It’s a subtle and satisfyingly layered performance, one that would be worth the price of admission even without the poignant context.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: Mood Indigo

My reflex reaction is to be protective of Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo, and not simply because the director exists in a permanent state of grace for giving the world Eternal Sunshine. It’s because his latest film is such an easy target. To come branded with the moniker “quirky” is to risk immediate snide dismissal by those who would sooner face a firing squad than offer a stamp of approval to anything with hipster appeal, and Mood Indigo may well be the quirkiest thing that has ever happened. It is the black tar heroin of twee. 
This film is such a perfect culmination of Gondry’s work up to this point, it’s a surprise to learn it didn’t originate in his brain but is based on a novel much loved in France. Every frame is packed to bursting with Gondry’s signature handcrafted effects. Indigo’s hero, Colin (Romain Duris) lives in an apartment that brings to mind a French Pee-wee’s Playhouse by way of the Peter Gabriel’s "Sledgehammer" video (Ask your parents, kids). There doesn’t seem to be a single inanimate object in the place. Colin’s breakfast is a ballet of squirming stop-motion treats, and the doorbell scurries around the wall like an excited pet when there is a visitor. Even the piano is revealed to be a clever gizmo that dispenses cocktails to match the mood of the tune played on it. One cannot accuse Gondry of laziness... 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Best of 2014 So Far - Supporting Actor

Best Supporting Actor of the First Half of 2014
  1. Ed Harris - Snowpiercer
  2. John Hurt - Only Lovers Left Alive
  3. Aaron Paul - Hellion
  4. Jeremy Renner - The Immigrant
  5. Peter Sarsgaard - Night Moves 

Best Supporting Actor of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)
  1. Redacted for Spoiler Calvary 
  2. Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
  3. Aaron Paul - Hellion
  4. Jeremy Renner - The Immigrant
  5. Peter Sarsgaard - Night Moves 

Best of 2014 So Far - Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress of the First Half of 2014
  1. Mira Grosin - We Are The Best!
  2. Juliette Lewis  - Hellion
  3. Tilda Swinton - Snowpiercer
  4. Uma Thurman - Nymphomaniac
  5. Mia Wasikowska - Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Supporting Actress of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)
  1. Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
  2. Tilda Swinton - Snowpiercer
  3. Uma Thurman - Nymphomaniac
  4. Brit Marling - I, Origins
  5. Mia Wasikowska - Only Lovers Left Alive

Best of 2014 So Far - Best Actress

Best Actress of the First Half of 2014
  1. Mira Barkhammer - We Are The Best!
  2. Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant
  3. Charlotte Gainsbourg - Nymphomaniac
  4. Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
  5. Jenny Slate - Obvious Child

Best Actress of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)
  1. Essie Davis - The Babadook
  2. Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant
  3. Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
  4. Elisabeth Moss - The One I Love
  5. Jenny Slate - Obvious Child

Best of 2014 So Far - Best Actor

Best Actor of the First Half of 2014

  1. Macon Blair - Blue Ruin
  2. Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  3. Tom Hardy - Locke
  4. Tom Hiddleston - Only Lovers Left Alive
  5. Joaquin Phoenix - The Immigrant

Best Actor of the First Half of 2014 (Festival Screenings Included)

  1. Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. Brendan Gleeson - Calvary
  3. John Lithgow - Love is Strange
  4. Alfred Molina - Love is Strange
  5. Dan Stevens - The Guest

Best of 2014 So Far

Top 10 Releases for the First Half of 2014

1. Blue Ruin
2. Under the Skin
3. We Are The Best!
4. Only Lovers Left Alive
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
6. Snowpiercer
7. Obvious Child
8. The Unknown Known
9. Locke
10. The Immigrant

Top 10 Releases for the First Half of 2014 (Including Festival Screenings)

1. Boyhood
2. The Babadook
3. Blue Ruin
4. Under the Skin
5. Love is Strange
6. We Are The Best!
7. Only Lovers Left Alive
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel
9. Snowpiercer
10. I, Origins