Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saturday Night Netflix: "Midnight Express"

Alan Parker’s Midnight Express is a tough, troubling, difficult picture. It’s thoroughly unpleasant to watch, loaded as it is with brutal assaults and grisly torture and people losing their minds; it also includes some cringe-inducing xenophobic attitudes and dialogue (which screenwriter Oliver Stone later apologized for). It’s structurally wobbly, and full of odd interludes. But you can’t deny director Parker’s ability to work over an audience; his direction is tight and sometimes unbearably tense, and he manages to draw us in to a story with a serious shortage of sympathetic characters, primarily through the sheer brute force of his imagery.

Friday, November 18, 2011

In Theaters: "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, November 17, 2011

In Theaters: "Another Happy Day"

When I was working on my undergraduate degree in Theatre Performance (I know, I know), I took an introductory playwriting class. One of the first lessons we learned was a simple equation: conflict = drama. Of course, it’s not that simple; all conflict isn’t automatically dramatic, and conflict isn’t necessarily defined by yelling, screaming, and crying. At some point, these important caveats should’ve been whispered to Sam Levinson, the writer/director of Another Happy Day, who squanders an excellent cast and inherently dramatic situation by amping up the volume and the tears. If you’re looking to watch people yell at each other for 119 minutes, boy do I have the movie for you.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On DVD: "Bellflower"

Evan Glodell's Bellflower begins with one of the oddest Meet-Cutes you've ever seen. Woodrow (Glodell) and his buddy Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are hanging out in a bar when their big promotion of the night is announced: a cricket-eating contest. The prize is nominal, but it's just the kind of thing that sounds like fun when you're half in the bag, and Woodrow likes the looks of Milly (Jessie Wiseman), the first girl to volunteer, so he's in. She destroys him, but they get to talking afterwards; she's got a terrific, wide smile, and an endearing way of calling him "buddy," and she isn't thrown by his response when she asks what he does ("I'm building a flamethrower"). He gets her phone number.

One of the many things that Bellflower gets exactly right is that palpable thrill of finding someone who is genuinely interesting, who you can't wait to see and talk to again. That's a feeling that comes across in films less often than you'd think; more often than not, the attraction between leading characters occurs because it seems pre-determined, motored by the script rather than the chemistry. The vibrations that come off of these two characters are so skillfully conveyed, and we buy their attraction with such unquestioned acceptance, that the strange turns their story takes are received without much resistance.