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.