Saturday, December 3, 2011

Saturday Night Netflix: "Passing Strange"

Spike Lee spent much of 2001 trying to get a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Rent off the ground; the project was at Miramax, and Lee—a New York filmmaker with both a personal interest and family history in music (his father was an acclaimed and respected musician and composer)—seemed like a perfect fit. But Lee and Miramax parted company over budgetary concerns, and the film was eventually made by Revolution and Columbia, with Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) inexplicably in the director’s chair. We’ll never know exactly what Lee’s Rent would have been like—it’s one of those things that only exists in the alternative movie universe, with Sam Peckinpah’s Superman and Orson Welles’ Heart of Darkness—though we can pretty safely guess it would have been superior to Columbus’ flaccid take.

However, we can get something of an idea of what a Lee Rent might have looked like from his latest release, a thrilling, energetic performance film of the similarly vibrant Broadway musical Passing Strange. Unfortunately, Strange couldn’t match Rent’s killer box office; it only ran 165 performances (symptomatic of a Broadway environment where critical kudos are seemingly less important than big stars or recycling of material). Lee was taken by the show, however, so he and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, The Fountain), took their cameras to the Belasco Theatre to capture the show’s final performances in July 2008.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

In Theaters: "Shame"

In the opening sequence of Steve McQueen's Shame, protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) flirts silently with a woman sitting near him on the subway. The filmmaker shows, and demands, incredible patience in this wordless scene; he lingers on the details (his fleeting glance, her ringed hand, the way she uncrosses her legs). McQueen intercuts that sequence with short, staccato glimpses of Brandon's day-to-day life, the rituals of his routine, which appears to consist primarily of the spaces between sex. There's nothing terribly expositional happening, but we feel, very quickly, like we know exactly who this guy is.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On DVD: "Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil"

Eli Craig's Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil begins with a scene of handheld, "found footage" horror, before jumping to a group of idiot college kids camping in hillbilly country. Once they hit the woods, there are shout-outs to The Evil Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Fargo, not to mention a story of a similar group picked off in these very woods 20 years previous by killers who are still... out... there. You don't have to be a horror movie aficionado on the lookout for those homages and quotations to enjoy Tucker & Dale, but it sure does help.

On DVD: "The Future"

People do not respond mildly to the work of Miranda July. Some find her a remarkable and unique voice; others find her films intolerable, overly mannered and self-conscious. I suspect that part of the reason that she evokes such fierce reactions is that people aren't quite sure what to make of her--her films (The Future is the long-awaited follow-up to her breakthrough picture, Me and You and Everyone We Know) are so unlike anything we've seen before that we don't have a pre-conditioned response to them to call up. In seeing other movies, we respond fairly quickly to elements we recognize and like (or dislike), and that sets the table for the rest of our experience--which may or may not upset those expectations, but they at least provide a starting point. July's films defy categorization. We don't know what the hell they are. On the film's IMDb page, the recommendations ("if you enjoy this title, our database also recommends") are: The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Robert Redford/Jennifer Lopez vehicle An Unfinished Life, the Meryl Streep romantic comedy Prime, the LGBT Muslim documentary A Jihad for Love, and the Ben Kingsley made-for-TV biblical drama Joseph. That's random even for IMDb recommendations. They can't figure out what box to put her in either.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On DVD: "Our Idiot Brother"

Jesse Peretz's Our Idiot Brother is the kind of movie that may very well play better on a second viewing, once your expectations have been adjusted and you know what they're going for. It is not, in spite of its broad premise and rather stock characters, a laugh-a-minute comedy; Peretz (and writers David Schisgall and Evgenia Peretz) go for a more muted, low-key affair. Then again, a second look might make all the more apparent the film's central flaw--that those two approaches are fundamentally at odds with each other. It is a good film, due primarily to the skill and pizzazz of its loaded cast. It is not a great film, though, because it doesn't seem sure of exactly what it wants to be.

On DVD: "30 Minutes or Less"

Ruben Fleischer's 30 Minutes or Less is a film nearly undone by the uncertainty of its tone--both in terms of how the events in the frame slam into each other, and how uneasily they coexist with life off-screen. You see, it is inspired (very, very loosely) by the story of Brian Douglas Wells, a 46-year-old pizza delivery driver who was involved in a bizarre 2003 incident in which he was forced--by virtue of the remote-controlled bomb strapped to his chest--to rob a bank and turn over the cash to his kidnappers. At first glance, this sounds like it might have action/heist/comedy potential, until you discover that Wells was killed when the bomb went off, and turned out to have been involved (at least in some manner) with the planning of the scheme. Whatever the degree of his involvement, I can't imagine his friends and family will be too amused by the decision to turn his misfortune into a wacky summer comedy.

On DVD: "Friends with Benefits"

Well, the “fuck buddies” comedy sweepstakes has come to close, with less of a clear winner and more of a draw. First came January’s No Strings Attached, Ivan Reitman’s fitfully amusing but formulaic and inexplicably overlong entry, featuring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman; now we have Portman’s Black Swan co-star Mila Kunis paired with Justin Timberlake for Friends with Benefits. This one is helmed by Will Gluck, the clever filmmaker behind last summer’s sleeper hit Easy A, a witty and knowing deconstruction of teen movie clich├ęs and literary allusions, anchored by a star-making performance by Emma Stone. Gluck’s involvement (and a supporting turn by Stone) made one hope that lightning would strike twice. Alas, Friends is only marginally better than Strings; it’s a glossy, empty after-dinner mint of a movie, endlessly predictable and surprisingly short on real laughs. And Emma Stone is only in one scene—the first.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

This Week's Links

From the Village Voice:
Horsedreams Is Addicted to Cliche

We’ve seen the anti-drug cautionary tale many times before, in prestige dramas and cheeseball PSAs and all points in between. Whether it can be done without simplification and sermonizing in the post-“Just Say No” era is a question left unanswered by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s new production Dale Orlandersmith’s HORSEDREAMS. It is an earnest work-—painfully, almost embarrassingly so. And it’s mostly free of nuance or complexity; the whole thing is about as subtle as a hammer to the head.

From Flavorwire:
Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’: Will Kids Respond to Cinema 101?

The most surprising thing about Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo (out Wednesday) is how much more there is to it than has been indicated in the ad campaign, which presents the picture—probably wisely, from a mass-market standpoint—as a standard children’s adventure with a dose of magic and a dash of slapstick, all in 3D (of course). To be clear: it is all of that, though done with a skill and intelligence that puts most “family movies” to shame.

A Look Back at Our Favorite Muppet Movie Moments

We’re going to do our best to keep from setting you up for a disappointment by overselling The Muppets (out in theaters tomorrow). Seriously, we’re going to try. But the fact of the matter is, it’s utterly delightful—a charming, witty, and frequently heartbreaking little gem. If we’re responding to it with more enthusiasm than it deserves, so be it; we grew up loving the Muppet movies, and this new effort somehow manages to summon up the spirit of (to borrow the Star Wars parlance) the “original trilogy” while also existing as its own wonderful addition to the Henson canon. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll leave singing "Mahna Mahna." So, in celebration of the franchise’s return to form, we’d like to pause and enjoy a few of our favorite moments from the earlier Muppet movies; add your own in the comments.

Flavorpill’s Zagat-Style Guide to TV’s Best Thanksgiving Episodes

Thanksgiving is upon us, and it’s high time to enjoy all of our favorite yearly traditions: the turkey, the stuffing, the pumpkin pie, the awkward family encounters, pretending to care about football… and, most of all, that venerable standby of episodic television, the Thanksgiving show. As best as we can determine, the first weekly series to do a Thanksgiving-centered episode was The Burns and Allen Show, back in 1951; Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and Mr. Peepers quickly followed suit, realizing that a Thanksgiving show offered plenty of fodder for conflict, resolution, and warm holiday cheer. We’ve selected ten of our favorite Thanksgiving episodes—and in the culinary spirit of the holiday, we present them in the ever-popular Zagat’s dining guide format, because why not? Check ‘em out after the jump and add your own in the comments.

Staff Picks: What Flavorpill Editors Are Thankful for This Year

I don’t often write about music here on the site, due to being grossly underqualified and hopelessly unhip (my big-dollar music purchase this fall was the 20th anniversary vinyl reissue of U2’s Achtung Baby, if that gives you an idea of how tightly I’ve got my finger on the pulse of what’s hot musically these days). But few things on this earth have given me as much pleasure this year as the utterly marvelous throwback video for Cee-Lo Green’s “Cry Baby.” Already my favorite song on the record (it runs circles around “Fuck You”), the Hi Records-style pop confection is given a candy-colored visual rendering, complete with backlot-style set design, retro group choreography, and Jaleel “Steve Urkel” White stepping into the role of Cee-Lo. It’s a beautifully executed, joyful clip with a sense of humor—a reminder of how great music videos can still be (if you can find them).

Trailer Park: Holiday Leftovers

Welcome to “Trailer Park,” our regular Friday feature where we collect the week’s new trailers all in one place and do a little “judging a book by its cover,” ranking them from worst to best and taking our best guess at what they may be hiding. We’ve got five new trailers for your post-turkey consumption this week; check ‘em out after the jump.