Friday, December 31, 2010

Know Your Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis Sex Comedies

“BLACK SWAN DIVA FEUD!” screams the National Enquirer headline. All right, we’re listening. According to “sources” and “an insider,” Ms. Portman is livid (LIVID!) at her Black Swan co-star. Why? Because Ms. Kunis is getting “Oscar talk” for her supporting work, though the film was supposed to be Portman’s showcase, and she is therefore (direct quote) “totally upset.” Well, as much fun as it must be to write anything that includes the phrase “diva feud,” we’re calling poppycock on this notion; anyone paying even a modicum of attention to the Oscar prognosticators knows that Portman is a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination, and probably for the big prize itself. If there is bad blood brewing between the off-screen friends, we’ve got a better theory: it’s because of their competing 2011 sex comedies.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best Movie Moments of 2010

Plenty of film critics and movie pundits have bemoaned the lack of truly great films in 2010, and while that’s not necessarily a notion that’s without validity, it could also be said that there was a surplus of awfully good movies this year. There may not have been many that really knocked us back, that pulled together ace screenplays, smart direction, and brilliant acting into the full package, the way the best movies do. But there was plenty to entertain, to enlighten, to thrill, to arouse; even some of the year’s lesser movies had an element—a good performance here, a memorable scene there—worth recommending. So with that, let’s take a look at some of the best scenes from this year’s movies—not all of them in films that were great (or, in some cases, even particularly good), but all meriting a spot in our 2010 movie scene mixtape:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

On DVD: "Gasland"

Good Lord, watch enough activist documentaries and you’ll pretty much give up on the entire human race. The food isn’t safe to eat, the environment is wrecked, the educational system is a mess, the economy will continue to fail, we’re in a cycle of never-ending war, and the world as we know it is pretty much on the edge of a collapse. Now we have Josh Fox’s Gasland, where we discover that natural grass drilling is contaminating our water. It’s hard to overstate the value of fictional escapism these days; if all we watched was non-fiction, we’d hide under the bed.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

On DVD: "Handsome Harry"

Harry hasn’t heard from Kelley in something like thirty years, and when he does, the guy’s literally calling from his deathbed. “Do you remember the night we almost killed Kagan?” he asks. Harry does. “I’m going to hell for it,” Kelly tells him. Harry’s pretty sure he is too. But Kelley’s guilt and fear gets Harry thinking, and he decides maybe it’s time to deal with what happened that night, all those many years ago.

On DVD: "Lennon Naked"

Has anyone in modern popular culture been the subject of as many biographical films as John Lennon? Every portion of his too-brief life has, it seems, gotten the docu-drama treatment: his boyhood and teen years (Nowhere Boy), the embryonic stages of his band (Backbeat, Birth of the Beatles), his relationship with manager Brian Epstein (The Hours and Times), his time with Yoko Ono (John and Yoko: A Love Story), his estrangement from Paul McCartney (Two of Us)… hell, even his murder has been the subject of not one, but two fictionalized accounts (Chapter 27 and The Killing of John Lennon). The BBC’s new drama Lennon Naked takes, as its focus, his relationship with his father and struggle for independence—from his past, from his first wife, from his bandmates. It is a flawed and somewhat shallow account, but it goes to some interesting places, and Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later, Doctor Who) is dynamite in the leading role.

On DVD: "The American"

Anton Corbijn’s The American begins with a short burst of austere action—regarded flatly, from a distance. Corbijn drains the scene of its sensationalism; there is no scare music, no tight close-ups. It is an unfortunate thing that happens, and that we move on from. There will be a good long while before there is more action. There is some at the end, also. But The American is not about action, and audiences looking for it will be disappointed, perhaps angered. It is a deliberate, methodical picture. Some have called it “slow.” They’re right in literal definition, if not in connotation. There’s a whole lot happening in it while nothing is happening.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Five Sexiest Christmas Movies

On a recent episode of his “Savage Love” podcast, Dan Savage indulged in what has become a Yuletide tradition: railing against Christmas-themed erotica. Savage’s implicit objection to Santa-hatted self-pics and the like is simple enough to understand; he thinks Christmas just isn’t sexy. He’s not alone, and most of these Sex Scrooges are right—there’s nothing inherently libidinous about a holiday centered on tree ornamentation, elf labor, and Jesus. But a handful of films have dared to forge an alliance between Christmastime and Sexytime:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On DVD: "Groucho Marx: TV Classics"

It’s sort of funny, how easily Groucho Marx made the transition to television—considering how much trouble he’d had breaking into every other medium he’d tried his hand at. He toured vaudeville for years, with various combinations of family and friends, before he and his brothers finally come up with an act that was any good; they only moved to the “legitimate” stage after burning bridges on the vaudeville circuits, and that was with a thrown-together revue made up of spare parts and songs which no one expected to go anywhere. The Marx Brothers are among our most beloved screen comedians, but their first film, the silent comedy Humorisk, was reportedly so bad that it disappeared after one screening. And though Groucho’s rapid-fire wit would seem perfect for radio, he watched several vehicles (both by himself and with brother Chico) inexplicably flop.

On DVD: "Despicable Me"

Making computer-animated family comedies for anyone other than Pixar must be a little bit like being a member of Gerry and the Pacemakers back in 1964—yes, yes, your band is very good, your songs are catchy and enjoyable, but you’re trying to make Beatles music, and c’mon, you’re not the Beatles. Despicable Me, the debut feature from Illumination Entertainment, is bright, cheery, and frequently funny. But it ain’t the Beatles.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In Theaters: "True Grit (2010)"

Well, come to find out, the notion of the Coen Brothers remaking True Grit isn’t a stretch at all. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn may be one of John Wayne’s most recognizable characters, but as imagined in their new adaptation (and played, expertly, by Jeff Bridges), he’s the latest in a long line of the Coens’ wonderfully loquacious heroes. Their films have always revealed a love of language, of its poetic possibilities and expositional powers; they’ve always been partial to men, from H.I. McDonnough to Charlie Meadows to Everett McGill to Professor G.H. Dorr, who take pleasure in the mere act of conversation—who talk, as it were, to hear themselves talk. The Coens enjoy the mere sound of dialogue, as evidenced by a wonderful moment early in True Grit that finds young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) coming up the steps to the courtroom where Cogburn is testifying. She’s not close enough to hear the words, leaving us to make out only the gut-barrel grunt of his throaty tones echoing through the stairwell.

In Theaters: "Somewhere"

In the opening scene of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a Ferrari roars across the screen, then around a race track, off-screen, and then back again. Over and over, through the frame, running the track in endless circles. The sequence isn’t accidentally chosen; Coppola is using the movement of the car as a metaphor for the monotony present in the life of the driver, movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff). Trouble is, it’s also representative of the film he inhabits. There is a fine line between making a film about a dull, humdrum life, and making a dull, humdrum film. Somewhere, unfortunately, does not quite manage to cross that line.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On DVD: "Easy A"

Will Gluck’s Easy A is such a step above the standard high-school sex comedy, so much smarter and funnier and drier than expected or, frankly, required, it's somewhat surprising that it actually made any money. It’s a breezy, sly effort, with a quick wit and a charmingly dirty mind, and those tend to be the “teen movies” that flop—unless you go back to something like Clueless, which it bears a more than passing resemblance to. Like that film, Easy A takes a classic piece of source material (in this case, The Scarlet Letter) and whirls it through a blender of knowing satire, relatable situational comedy, and pop-culture percipience to whip up something new and fresh and genuinely funny. And, like Clueless, it could very well make a movie star out of its lead. (Hopefully that works out a little better for this one.)

On DVD: "Double Take"

Too often avant-garde or experimental cinema, for all of its value, fails on a basic level of engagement; somewhere it seems to be written that, these days anyway, we can’t have a good time at far-out movies. There are experimental filmmakers out there, yes, and they’re doing work that is groundbreaking and earnest and thumbs its nose at convention and pretention, but good God, some of it is just plain unwatchable. Well, Johan Grimonprez’s Double Take is, for all intents and purposes, an experimental movie—a weirdo assemblage of archival footage, marginally connected text, re-enactments of imagined events, and oddball flights of fancy. I’m still not quite sure how it all fits together, except as a free-form film essay on everything from Alfred Hitchcock, the Cold War, and doppelgangers to outer space, television, and coffee. But it is enthralling cinema.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Cold Souls"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). 

Here’s a research project for you: find one review of Sophie Barthes’ Cold Souls that doesn’t mention Charlie Kaufman. Good luck! They are, admittedly, pretty easy dots to connect; Barthes’ story, in its broad strokes, mixes the pseudo-celebrity themes of Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich script with the medical/psychological concepts of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But what’s important to note is that Cold Souls is no mere copycat, no proto-Kaufman Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead; it is a film with its own particular style and ideas, and, at its best, is just as strong as the pictures it is so readily connected to.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Is T.J. Miller America's Most Charmingly Delusional Actor?

As I'm sure you all know--what with all the websites and their countdown clocks--today is Yogi Bear day, when at long last Warner Brothers unleashes their thoroughly hatable 3-D grab for CG-animated holiday money (or, as its called in Hollywood board rooms, "Chipmunk Cheddar"). The reviews have been, well, somewhat less than kind. But at least one man has positive things to say about the film: supporting player T.J. Miller.

Miller's work as Ranger Jones, whose nefarious attempts to wreck Ranger Smith's gig as head ranger are apparently motivated by his desire to drive the park go-kart really fast (don't ask me, I dunno), was neither memorable enough nor unfortunate enough for me to even bother mentioning him in my review. But the young actor is beating the drum loudly for the picture, most notably in a Movieline interview that must be read to be believed. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In Theaters: "Yogi Bear"

Let’s begin with a public service announcement: If you attend the new big-screen incarnation of Yogi Bear, you will, at one point, see the titular character shake his big, CG-animate bear ass to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” I implore you: do not subject yourself to this. It’s kind of like The Human Centipede; once you’ve seen it, you cannot un-see it.

In Theaters: "Casino Jack"

The thing about the Jack Abramoff story is not that a great film could be made of it, it’s that one already was: Alex Gibney’s thrilling, brilliant, angry documentary account, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, released earlier this year. The most depressing element of the late George Hickenlooper’s dramatization—which carries the simpler title Casino Jack—is that it will presumably be seen by a much larger audience, by sheer virtue of the fact that it is not a documentary and that it features actors you’ve heard of, like Kevin Spacey and Kelly Preston. But it’s a messy, lumpy affair which somehow takes the opportunity to streamline and dramatize the Abramoff story and instead gets all tied up in narrative knots.

On DVD: "The Town"

Fitzgerald famously wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives,” but Fitzgerald wasn’t a film critic. He might have revised his opinion had he witnessed the somewhat spectacular resurrection of one Ben Affleck, who went from Oscar winner and must-have leading man to overexposed pop culture punchline in the space of about half a decade. Some of this was his fault (he certainly didn’t have to make Surviving Christmas, or Paycheck, or that cameo in then-girlfriend J-Lo’s music video), and some of it wasn’t, but Affleck did just about the smartest thing he could’ve done—he went under the radar. Onscreen, he limited his appearances to compact character roles; off-screen, he cast an eye towards the future, co-writing and directing the critically-acclaimed 2007 adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel Gone Baby Gone.

Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci to Team Up for the Movie of my 10th Grade Dreams

Perhaps out of understandable guilt and shame about going off and doing another one of those goddamn Fockers movies, Robert DeNiro is talking more about The Irishman, his upcoming mob movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, co-starring Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Oh, and maybe Harvey Keitel too. Ya know, if they feel like it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On DVD: "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson- Show Date: 05/04/77"

So what’s an even bigger rip-off then packaging a bunch of incomplete, badly edited Tonight Show episodes into a big, seemingly definitive box set? That’s easy—break out a bunch of those incomplete episodes and sell them individually. How’s 13 bucks sound for a 37-minute truncation of a mid-level episode of Tonight? Quite a bargain, eh? The May 4, 1977 edition finds Carson welcoming a pair of very funny men (Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor), but the results are somewhat mediocre; of the three, only Pryor really brings the funny.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Golden Globe Nominations Spotlight Why No One Takes Golden Globes Seriously

Conventional Hollywood wisdom held that True Grit, Somewhere, and maybe The Town would pull down some kudos come awards season, so thank God we've got the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to be all, "Hey dudes, how about Burlesque? And Red? And did you see The Tourist? It's got Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in it, and boy are they easy on the eyes, eh? Hey, did Johnny Depp do anything else we can nominate him for?"

Monday, December 13, 2010

On DVD: "Micmacs"

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs is a delightful little fun house of a movie, and a welcome return to form for the playful French filmmaker, who followed up the internationally beloved Amelie with the well-made but underwhelming (and somewhat downbeat) A Very Long Engagement five years back. It’s an utterly charming picture that takes a dark tale and puts a whiz-bang spin on it.

On DVD: "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

Early in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundeberg’s extraordinary documentary portrait Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the legendary comic’s manager offers up an assessment of the general perception of his client. “Right now,” he says flatly, “they see her as a plastic surgery freak who’s past due.” Full disclosure: I was one of those people. My primary impressions of Rivers were of a, yes, plastic surgery freak, braying on a red carpet on E! (their exclamation point, not mine). I knew her as the woman who quit the gig guest-hosting Carson for a Fox competitor that flopped miserably; I knew her as one of the C-grade schlubs on “Celebrity” Apprentice (my quotes, not theirs). What I didn’t know her as was funny, or fascinating. In Stern and Sundberg’s excellent documentary, she is both.

On DVD: "Cyrus"

Everything you need to know—or remember—about how great John C. Reilly is can be found in the first ten or so minutes of the Duplass Brothers’ Cyrus. As Reilly’s “John” tries to recover from an embarrassing situation with his ex-wife, then attempts to blend in at an upscale party she’s dragged him to, he’s funny, he’s warm, he’s a little bit crazy, he’s a lot awkward. “I am in a tailspin,” he tells a girl that he feels a connection with. “I’m lonely, I’m depressed…” (It’s not exactly party pick-up material.) He’s doing the kind of complex, multi-layered work he was doing for Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, about a decade ago when we all started to become aware of this oddly extraordinary actor.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

On DVD: "Mother and Child"

“Her birthday’s coming up,” Karen tells her mother. “She’ll be 37.” Karen gave her daughter up for adoption on the day of her birth; she was 14 at the time. She hasn’t seen her since. But she’s out there; her name is Elizabeth and she’s successful and upwardly mobile, but closed off and unapproachable. They have that in common. Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child is about how their lives finally intersect, in none of the ways that you might expect from the summary thus far. And it is the story of another woman, Lucy, who is looking to adopt as well; she’ll come into their lives, but also in a surprising way.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Smash His Camera"

We first meet Ron Galella, the self-proclaimed “paparazzo superstar,” in his darkroom, where he talks us through the process of developing his pictures. He’s then seen going through his old notes, and fondly recalls a week in October 1971 when he “got Jackie five times.” The “Jackie” is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom he pursued with a relentlessness that some might say bordered on obsession for something like the last twenty-five years of her life. Of particular note was their encounter on September 24, 1969, when Galella got too close for her comfort and she called the police on him. “Smash his camera,” she instructed her guards.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On DVD: "LennonNYC"

In the thirty years since his untimely death, there has been no shortage of documentaries and docudramas concerning John Lennon, and as a diehard Lennon and Beatles fan, I’ve seen them all. So it is with some surprise that I found the American Masters portrait LennonNYC so fresh and inspired; it takes a new angle on its subject, and paints its picture of him with a wealth of rare material and seldom-told tales from lesser-known sources.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

In Theaters: "The Fighter"

There isn’t a moment in The Fighter that you haven’t seen before. This is not a jab—this is fact. The story of the aging boxer taking his last shot, torn between his loyalty to his troubled Boston family and his love for a good woman, is filled with echoes of other films, better and worse: the Rocky movies, The Wrestler, Cinderella Man, The Champ, The Hammer, Good Will Hunting. Those echoes surround the picture, and sometimes threaten to envelop it; they make it easy to shrug off as an also-ran, a cliché. And, in a macro-cinematic sense, perhaps it is.

In Theaters: "The Company Men"

There’s a wonderful movie happening in Tommy Lee Jones’s eyes, a tale of man worn down by the world, who has seen it all twice and doesn’t care to see it again, who has heard all your stories and pierces through all your bravado. It is the story of a man who has been doing what he does for so long that he’s not even sure why he’s still doing it, who can barely be bothered to raise his voice anymore, since downing a big glass of scotch will get him about the same results.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bookshelf: "The War for Late Night"

Once the dust had settled, one piece of good news emerged from the much-publicized melee between Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and NBC over the future of The Tonight Show: Bill Carter, the New York Times writer whose 1994 book The Late Shift brought to vivid life the last fight for Tonight, was hard at work on a follow-up. The resultant volume, The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy (Viking, $26.95), shares many of its predecessor’s virtues: the prose is crisp, the narrative is tightly-wound, and Carter has a knack for fleshing out and humanizing key players. It is excellent reportage. The (admittedly minor) disappointment is that Carter is so busy playing fair that he doesn’t push past the surface to the analysis that seems the next logical step.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On DVD: "Inception"

With Inception, Christopher Nolan has taken the resources and budget of a major studio summer blockbuster, and utilized them to make a complex, challenging, thoughtful, thrilling, and ultimately rewarding film—to basically do everything you’re not supposed to do in a big-budget summer movie. But he did it, and in response, audiences have come out in droves. It’s a massive hit. There ought to be dancing in the streets when this happens.

On DVD: "Restrepo"

PFC Juan “Doc” Restrepo is featured in the opening moments of the documentary that bears his name, in home movies that he shot himself; he turns the camera around as he mugs and jokes with his buddies, all about to be deployed to Afghanistan. “We’re goin’ to war, we’re goin’ to war, we’re goin’ to war,” he chants, giddily. He would not make it out alive. His fellow soldiers would eventually build an outpost where they were fighting, and name it after him. It stood in the Korangal Valley, which CNN dubbed “the deadliest place on earth.” American forces had another name for it: “The valley of death.”

Monday, December 6, 2010

On DVD: "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel"

There are several different levels of admiration and/or disgust that one can feel about Hugh Hefner, often simultaneously. But the complexity of our feelings about the Playboy founder isn’t really on the table in Brigette Berman’s documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel, which is less an examination of Hefner than it is a celebration of him. Make no mistake, there are things about him worth celebrating, no matter where you stand on the magazine he is irrevocably tied to. But it’s a sliding scale, and for all of its virtues, the primary flaw of Berman’s film is that it sees him in black and white terms: you’re either with him or you’re against him.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On DVD: "30 for 30 Gift Set Collection, Volume 1"

I try not to make this about me, but here’s the thing you have to understand about my response to 30 for 30: I am not a sports guy. Not by the longest shot, not even a little. This is not meant as a judgment of those who are; I know plenty of them, and they’re very nice people. But there are few things on this earth less intrinsically interesting to me than watching a sporting event, either live or on television—I can’t help it, it’s just how I’m wired. On top of that, it’s a time management thing; the notion of wiling away three hours of television time watching a football game while there are still Robert Altman films I haven’t seen is, frankly, unacceptable.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). 

Jean-Michel Basquiat had made his first impressions on the New York underground art scene at 18. By the time he was 22, he was a star; at age 24, he made the cover of The New York Times Magazine and was collaborating with Andy Warhol. He was dead of a heroin overdose at 27.

Read This: From Rushdie's "Is Nothing Sacred?"

I'm a little late to the party on Salman Rushdie--like, 20+ years. But we're reading his essay collection  Imaginary Homelands in one of my classes, and this passage, at the end of the essay "Is Nothing Sacred?" (written in 1990, just as people were trying to kill him for things he'd written), may very well be one of the greatest things I've ever read--at least in terms of getting at the particular power of fiction (written, played, filmed, or otherwise). I found it unexpectedly powerful and moving and miraculous, and figured putting it here was about the only way I might get at least one more person to read it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In Theaters: "Black Swan"

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a taut, harrowing thriller that unfolds with palpable tension and nightmarish logic. It’s an odd hybrid of backstage melodrama and psychological horror, anchored by two splendid supporting performances and Natalie Portman’s best work to date. Aronofsky has never been our subtlest filmmaker, and his operatic tendencies occasionally get the best of him here. But generally speaking, the picture is scary, sexy, and terrific—a freaky mindfuck of the first order.

In Theaters: "All Good Things"

Andrew Jarecki’s All Good Things arrives with the expected bad buzz of a so-called “troubled production”; it was shot back in 2008 and initially intended for a fall 2009 release before hitting the fabled Weinsten shelves, where it languished for a year or so before director Jarecki bought back the domestic distribution rights and cut a deal with Magnolia Pictures. Considering some of the pap that the Weinstein Company has foisted on us in that year, the fact that they didn’t think All Good Things was worth releasing would seem, for most, a telling indication of the quality of the picture. Instead, it’s a reminder of the continuing decline in judgment at the Weinstein Company, since the film they sat on for a year is, come to find out, outstanding.

In Theaters: "I Love You Phillip Morris"

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s I Love You Phillip Morris is a wry, unpredictable little movie, with an oddball spirit that is both its blessing and its curse. It is, without question, a unique picture, with a zippy pace that barrels through enough plot for a miniseries, and a giggly tone that turns on a dime. But it is so much its own, peculiar entity that it is all but impossible to judge exactly what it’s trying to do, and whether it is doing it. Set adrift from our standard barometers, one cannot be sure whether it is nimble or messy, whether the narrative is ingenious or hodgepodge, whether Carrey’s performance is a masterstroke or a nightmare. It feels, at times, like Ficarra and Requa (who both wrote and directed) came up with three or four different approaches to the material, wrote them all, fed them into a paper shredder, and shot what came out.

In Theaters: "Barney's Version"

Barney’s Version is a movie that spends a good chunk of its running time getting everything just right, and then fumbles through an ending that does everything absolutely wrong. The picture is downright schizophrenic—and that’s a shame, because in those early passages, it appears to be doing something genuinely unique and daring, forging a tone that is odd but engaging, quiet yet epic, and doing so with tremendous confidence and chutzpah. And then it all goes right down the toilet.

In Theaters: "Meskada"

There’s a delicate line between making a film about lifeless small towns, and making a lifeless film. Josh Sternfeld’s Meskada, for all of its good intentions and craftsmanship, can’t stay on the right side of that line. It is about the plain-spoken folks in small towns (it was shot in upstate New York), and writer/director Sternfeld takes great pains to capture the low-key interactions and deliberate rhythms of their lives. But for much of the picture, he forgets to provide a pulse.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On DVD: "Parks & Recreation- Season Two"

Leslie Knope, the cheerful, big-dreaming, mid-level city employee at the center of the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, is a deceptively complicated character. At first blush, she comes on as strident and irritating, a type-A, rule-book-reading, power-hungry bureaucrat. But she has neither the killer instinct nor the selfishness to do any harm (or go much of anywhere); she’s got a good heart, and is too hung up on being liked to be a genuine cutthroat. The subtle shadings that make Leslie such a rich and ultimately charming character are the kind of nuances that can only sneak out organically over the course of a TV series; if she were a character in a feature film, she’d be written as a hidebound, clueless schmuck, and probably played that way too. But over the course of a 24-episode season, we can get to know Leslie Knope, and to root for her too.

On DVD: "The Sicilian Girl"

In the opening scene of Marco Amenta’s The Sicilian Girl, Rita (Veronica D’Agostino) refuses to give up the pistol she’s been carrying. “It’s all I have of my father,” she explains. The entire film grows out of that dichotomy between sentimentality and violence, between familial obligation and brutality. It’s a deliberately muted picture, which works both for the film and against it, but whatever the reservations, it is well worth seeing; Amenta digs deep into his story to find the soul underneath, even at risk of alienating more hyperactive viewers.

Monday, November 29, 2010

On DVD: "Going the Distance"

Going the Distance is a movie that's wrong in all the big ways and right in all the small ones. Put simply, it's a fucking mess--tonally inconsistent, maddeningly illogical, only fitfully funny. But it can't be dismissed as easily as all that. There's a genuinely interesting picture lurking around its edges, one which occasionally bursts onto the screen and runs around for a while before the requirements of the formula at the movie's center shoves it back under the bed. That movie is worth seeing.

On DVD: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

There are few sequences in all of animated film more iconic than the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment of Disney's Fantasia; even those who haven't seen the movie are familiar with the image of Mickey Mouse in his wizard's hat, conducting the bucket-carting mops. In Disney's shockingly unnecessary new live-action version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the guy from She's Out of My League casts the mop spell to help him clean up his lab for a big date with a hot radio DJ. That sentence may contain everything you need to know about the picture.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "The Constant Gardener"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). 

These reviews occasionally come easily, from a notebook scrawled in the dark with countless comment, criticisms, and random ramblings, from which we formulate something resembling a coherent criticism, or at least an entertaining read. And yet, here I have my notes from The Constant Gardener. There’s about six of them. Sometimes we’re too buy watching the movie to take notes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In Theaters: "Tangled"

Tangled is the 50th feature-length Disney animated picture, and it wobbles uncertainly on a precipice separating their past and their future. It has the sleek sheen of the computer-generated animation that has made their subsidiary Pixar the gold standard in movie animation; with a couple of exceptions, the look of the film is tremendous. But it attempts to wed this new, modern technique with a decidedly old-fashioned Disney storytelling style, and the mixture doesn’t take. In their attempt to revitalize an aging brand, they’ve gone and updated the wrong stuff.

Monday, November 22, 2010

On DVD: "The Disappearance of Alice Creed"

J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed is so antsy to get going, they don’t even bother with an opening title; they don’t want to waste a frame that can’t be spent building tension. The opening sequence is a dread-filled masterwork, in which Danny (Martin Compston) and Vic (Eddie Marsan) coldly and efficiently buy supplies and prepare for a kidnapping—lining a van, sound-proofing a bedroom, drilling in extra locks, attaching the bed frame to the floor. There’s not a word spoken—it’s all disturbing sound effects and antsy music (Marc Canham’s score is a jittery corker) until one line of dialogue (“Okay”) and then... the screaming. Oh, the screaming.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Watch This: "Source Code" Trailer

If you like things that don't stink, you probably liked Moon, and afterwards, you were probably all, "Hey, whatever movie that guy makes next, I'm seeing!" Well, good news: "that guy" is Duncan Jones, and you'll be seeing Source Code. Bad news: It's not out until April 2011. But this trailer should tide you over at least a little; the movie, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright, looks like the cross between The Matrix and Groundhog Day that you never realized you couldn't live without.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On DVD: "The Two Escobars"

I’ve never been a sports fan, but I never miss an episode of 30 for 30, ESPN’s anniversary series of original sports documentaries by filmmakers of note. The resulting docs have been of such high quality that they’ve made the festival rounds and even seen some limited theatrical playdates; Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist’s The Two Escobars, an ambitious dual biography of Colombian footballer Andrés Escobar and Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is one of the best to date.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On DVD: "The Extra Man"

Let us consider the strange case of writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who made a huge splash back in 2003 with Sundance winner (and Oscar nominee) American Splendor. That film, an ingenious hybrid of biography, documentary, comic book, and general malaise, managed to be singularly unique in a particularly homogenized period of independent film; it appeared to mark the arrival of a pair of truly original voices. So everyone was more than a little confused by their 2007 follow-up, The Nanny Diaries, a film not so much bad as it was plain and forgettable. Anyone, it seemed, could have been behind this Upper West Side coming-of-age comedy/romance; there was nothing particularly distinctive to be found in it.