Saturday, October 15, 2011

Saturday Night Netflix: "The Trip"

Director Michael Winterbottom and actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have met before; they collaborated on the baffling yet enchanting Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, with the two actors playing both themselves and characters in the film-within-the-film. In The Trip, an improvised mockumentary/travelogue, they’re only playing themselves—or, at least, an extension of the (presumably) comedically exaggerated personas that they played in the earlier film. The result is a giggly, entertaining treat, albeit one that overstays its welcome a touch.

#NYFF Review: "The Descendants"

The phrase “slice of life” has been tossed around so haphazardly, for so long, that it’s become something of a pejorative—the kind of descriptor that sounds alarm bells of laziness, or preciousness, or predictability. If considering only its broad strokes, Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants sounds as though it could easily fall into those traps; it is the story of a man wrestling with new responsibilities and old secrets as his wife lies on her deathbed. It’s in the playing that the film finds its flavor—in Payne’s unique ear for dialogue and tone, and in the keenly felt performances, particularly a leading turn by George Clooney that is among his finest work.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In Theaters: "Footloose (2011)"

Of the many questions prompted by Craig Brewer’s new remake of Footloose, here’s the most intriguing: at the beginning of the film, in the opening credit sequence, everyone dances and grins and sings along to the Kenny Loggins title song from the original 1984 film. Clearly, in both our world and the world of this film, it is a beloved piece of pop culture arcana. But wait a second—the reason people know that song well enough to sing and dance to it, even though it’s pushing two decades old, is that it’s from the dopey ‘80s movie Footloose. So how do the kids in this remake of Footloose know it? Does this film take place in some alternate reality where the Kenny Loggins song is just a randomly-generated ditty about kicking off your Sunday shoes, and not one that was prompted by a motion picture about a big-city kid who comes to a small town and teaches them to cut loose, footloose?

Or, better yet, are we being set up for some kind of meta-movie mind-fuck, where everyone in the Footloose remake is fully aware of the original movie, and so when the big-city kid shows up, it seems that this mid-‘80s extended music video is actually a work of prophecy? Does the kid know? Is this his destiny? Or does it prompt some kind of twisty intermingling of truth and fiction, in which the very boundaries of their reality—and ours—come tumbling down? Is Charlie Kaufman available?

In Theaters: "Texas Killing Fields"

Texas Killing Fields is the feature directorial debut of Ami Canaan Mann, who is the daughter of Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral). Normally, one might bury that lede, lest the charges of nepotism overshadow the result of her efforts, but the promotional materials have all but made that the banner headline, so what the hell. In all fairness, her old man’s influence isn’t hard to spot; the picture’s got wall-to-wall music, up-close digital photography, and a stripped-down, no-nonsense storytelling style. What she doesn’t yet have is the ability to shape those elements into a tight, coherent package. That’ll come, I suppose.

In Theaters: "Bombay Beach"

Alma Har'el’s Bombay Beach mixes documentary naturalism and observation with artful peculiarity and an offhandedly surreal quality. I’ve never seen a film quite like it. This is a compliment. It is a sometimes-tragic, sometimes-befuddling, thoroughly impressionistic portrait of poverty in the desert—specifically, in the area near the Salton Sea, once considered a prime area for California development, now a barren wasteland littered with trailer homes, discarded objects, and “the misfits of the world” (according to Red, who is one of them).

#NYFF Review: "Vito"

Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito does not start promisingly—the structure is staggeringly standard, opening with a sweeping pre-title montage assuring us of the importance of the subject before proceeding into a cradle-to-the-grave, A-followed-B-followed-C biographical portrait. But the story being told sweeps us in so quickly and confidently that we quickly forget the predictable way in which it’s being told; when you’ve got a subject this compelling, they style doesn’t have to blow our minds.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

#NYFF Review: "The Skin I Live In"

“Well, this is a peculiar film,” I thought to myself, as Antonio Banderas began taking the dildoes out of their case and arranging them by size on the dresser. And indeed it is. In this, the latest from Pedro Almodovar, there is (as with so much of his work) a vague feeling of displacement from its opening scenes forward; if you’ve not seen all of his films (and I have not), these later pictures can feel like a play that you’ve wandered into at intermission. The style, the world he’s established in his twenty-some films is recognizably his own—there is no doubt, for a frame of The Skin I Live In, that you are watching “un film de Almodovar.”

On DVD: "Terri"

Our first real indication that all is not right with Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is when we see him trudging off to school in his pajamas. It’s not a one-time thing; he does it every day. They’re just comfortable, you see. It’s not a decision that’s going to enrich his already unfortunate high school existence; the overweight teen is a frequent target of harassment and bullying, called “Grimace” or “Trash Heap” or worse.

Azazel Jacobs’s Terri captures, more than any film in recent memory, the sheer depression of dragging yourself through the day at a school where you do not feel that you belong. Patrick Dewitt (who wrote the screenplay) remembers the soul-crushing heartlessness and despair of those daily interactions, of being the outcast, the oddball, the misfit.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

#NYFF Review: "My Week with Marilyn"

“Shall I be her?” asks Marilyn Monroe, and you see how she changes—she tarts it up, putting her hand behind her head just so, moving in that distinctive way, playing up the persona of Marilyn that was, it seems, quite removed from the real person in there, the damaged girl named Norma Jean who wrestled her entire short life with crippling insecurities and terrible addictions. The dichotomy between the person and the image has been explored memorably before (most obviously in the cable movie Norma Jean and Marilyn), and that split is the key to Michelle Williams’s brilliant performance in My Week with Marilyn.

And it is, make no mistake, a terrific piece of work—so very good, in fact, and surrounded by so many other fine performances that we’re tempted to think the movie is as great as she is, just as Jamie Foxx’s amazing work in Ray somehow convinced people that it was an Oscar-worthy picture. It wasn’t, and neither is My Week with Marilyn; it has its moments, but the surplus of clich├ęs and constructs is crippling.