Friday, January 27, 2012

#Sundance Review: "Bachelorette"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

If a single critic reviews Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette and doesn’t mention Bridesmaids, I’ll eat my hat. The filmmakers probably won’t mind the comparisons—after all, that wedding party comedy’s monster grosses got this one the greenlight, and quick. It doesn’t have that film’s warmth or sweetness; this is a sharper, spikier comedy, where the laughs have a darker, murkier undertow. It will certainly not have the kind of wide appeal that Bridesmaids did. It feels more like that picture’s scrappier, foul-mouthed little sister. Some will like that idea very much. You know who you are.

#Sundance Review: "Shadow Dancer"

Shadow Dancer is a finely crafted, intelligently acted political thriller/drama with a complexity, subtlety, and depth that immediately recalls the recent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy--to this film's detriment, as it is not as compelling a picture. The comparison seems unfair (the films were certainly in production at around the same time), but it's there nonetheless; it's the elephant in the screening room. Those reservations aside, Shadow Dancer is well worth investigating--it's a modest but absorbing picture, and features a captivating performance by Clive Owen.

He plays Mac, an MI5 officer who meets Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) across an interrogation table. She's just been brought in following an aborted bombing in the London tube. In the film's Belfast-set prologue, we get a pretty good idea of her motives: her youngest brother is murdered in the streets. McVeigh and her two surviving brothers are now IRA operatives. Mac is less interested in arresting Colette than he is in finding out what she has to offer. He proposes a deal to the single mother, offering her the chance to stay free if she becomes an informant. It's not much of a choice, and one she must wrestle with, at great personal risk.

The director is James Marsh, who not only helmed the terrific documentaries Man On Wire and Project Nim, but the second (and best) of the Red Riding films. He's working in a deliberately muted key here--Owen seldom raises his voice (he doesn't have to), and the rest of the cast follows suit. Marsh (working from Tom Bradby's adaptation of his own novel) keeps creeping in closer to the action, working up a palpable sense of whispered tension and understated suspense. Both are in place from the prologue on; the boy is sent out on a simple errand (seldom an even worth dramatizing), and Marsh stays with young Colette, piddling around their house and doing busy work--he knows that we know what's coming, and draws it out agonizingly.

If my commentary is light, it's primarily because the unfolding of the complex narrative requires so much of the viewer's attention. Like Tinker Tailor, Shadow Dancer may very well require a second viewing for the filmgoer to not only fully comprehend the events onscreen, but to fully appreciate its inside-voices storytelling style. It doesn't all play; the romantic angle comes off as awkward and tacked-on, and Gillian Anderson's character feels, to put it politely, underdeveloped. These complaints are fairly minor, though. Marsh's rhythms take some getting used to, but his direction is concise, forceful even, and his actors turn in performances both controlled and urgent--Owen is a marvel, and Riseborough carries her quiet desperation across her fine features with resigned grace. Marsh is a ruthlessly intelligent filmmaker, and while Shadow Dancer doesn't quite reach the heights of his nonfiction work, it's still a fine piece of cinematic craftsmanship.

"Shadow Dancer" screened this week at the Sundance Film Festival; its final screening is on 1/28.

#Sundance Review: "Room 237"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

People get worked up about Stanley Kubrick. There may be no filmmaker whose work has been more intensely hyper-analyzed; reams of paper and acres of cyberspace have been used to ponder the ending of 2001, the violence of A Clockwork Orange, the morality of Lolita. Yet some of the strangest and most intricate close-readings of his work have been attached to his most seemingly straightforward project: the 1980 film adaptation of The Shining. To the casual observer, the film seems a genre piece, the intellectual aesthete trying his hand at horror. But a few decidedly non-casual observers, theorists and critics and the like, see all kind of precise subtext luring within The Shining, and Rodney Ascher’s ingenious montage documentary Room 237 (subtitled “Being an inquiry into The Shining in 9 parts”) gives them the opportunity to take their theories for a spin. The result is a brainy blast, a witty and frisky documentary that is, incidentally, a cinephile’s dream.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

In Theaters: "The Grey"

There’s a stillness at the center of Liam Neeson which goes a long way to explain his unexpected yet delightful cinematic second act as an action hero. He’s not the first actor to mine the “reluctant man of action” groove, but he’s one of the few that actually makes you believe him; he projects a sense of a life lived before the camera rolled, of experiences and knowledge accumulated that he’d rather not call upon, but fine, if he must, he must. He’s present on the screen—“in the moment,” as they say in all of those beginning acting classes, and he’s not waiting for the opportunity to knock someone out or stage a daring escape. He does it if he has to, and he gets on with it.

#Sundance Review: "Your Sister's Sister"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The friends have gathered because it’s been a year since Tom’s death. Al (Mike Birbiglia) gets up to say a few words about what a great guy Tom was, so kind, so thoughtful, so remarkable. From across the room, Tom’s brother Jack (Mark Duplass) objects. You guys didn’t know him when he was younger, Jack says. He was a bully, an asshole, and if we’re going to talk about him, let’s acknowledge “the full man.” He raises his glass, and leaves.

This scene, which opens Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister, is about as keenly-observed a dramatization of genuine social discomfort as you’re likely to see in a film. It’s one of several moments that have an almost documentary-styled naturalism; Shelton writes a specific kind of witty, conversational dialogue—casual, overheard, and funny. (We can presume from the “creative consultant” credit given to the film’s four speaking actors that a fair amount of it is improvised as well.)

#Sundance Review: "The End of Love"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The End of Love is the second feature film directed by Mark Webber, whose primary vocation is as an actor (and a busy one; he appears in two other films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival). His debut feature was Explicit Ills, a tedious attempt at the Altmanesque multiple-intersecting-characters film; it hinted that Webber was a real director with a good eye, but that his screenwriting was cripplingly schematic.

His new film is such an improvement over its predecessor that it almost seems a rebuke. It’s an immensely personal picture, dwelling in an undefined hazy area somewhere between art and autobiography—Webber plays “Mark,” a young actor of some success who is struggling to raise his two-year-old son (played by Webber’s own boy, Isaac) after the unexpected death of the child’s mother.

#Sundance Review: "The Words"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Simply put, the danger in making a movie about a great novelist is that screenwriters are so seldom great novelists themselves. Take The Words, an entire film predicated on the idea that Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a fabulously successful and universally acclaimed author; his work is good enough to pay for a giant Manhattan apartment, to draw a huge crowd for a reading and book release party, and to make Olivia Wilde want to get in his pants. As the film begins, he walks up to the podium to do a reading from his latest novel, and that’s where the trouble starts.

You see, he’s a terrible writer. His book—which is read, at length, in voicver-over—is astonishingly pedestrian prose, stiff and stilted. Sample excerpt: “And on a Friday afternoon, they were married at City Hall. They honeymooned in Paris.” Another: “It was a crisp and clear autumn morning. The old man was dressed exactly as the day before.” Okay, last one: “Finally, the great writer Roy Jansen was forced to take a day job.” If I may paraphrase Capote, that’s not writing, that’s screenwriting.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

#Sundance Review: "Goats"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Several fine performers end up mostly spinning their wheels in Goats, a boilerplate coming-of-age story from director Christopher Neil. The cast is chock full of likable people: David Duchovny, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Justin Kirk, and Keri Russell all turn up, and all are appealing. Neil’s direction is smooth and professional; screenwriter Mark Poirier (adapting his novel) pens some quotable lines. But it doesn’t add up to much; it’s a wisp of a movie, gone by the time you’re out of your seat.

#Sundance Review: "John Dies at the End"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

It’s been a full decade since director Don Coscarelli released Bubba Ho-Tep, one of the most enjoyably batshit-insane pictures in recent memory. (It concerns an old, fat Elvis and a black JFK battling an ancient Egyptian mummy. Look, just rent it.) One could safely assume that, in that decade, Mr. Coscarelli came up with an abundance of concepts and ideas that he wanted to try out. The trouble with his new film, John Dies at the End, is that he appears to have decided to just smash them all in—coherence and tempo be damned.

#Sundance Review: "The Surrogate"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

When Mark O’Brien was six years old, he contracted polio; the disease confined him to an iron lung, though he could leave it for a few hours a day on a gurney. In spite of his numerous challenges, he graduated from UC-Berkely, and became a well-known poet and journalist. And when he was 38, he decided he wanted to lose his virginity. Ben Lewin’s The Surrogate is the story of how that happened.

#Sundance Review: "Safety Not Guaranteed"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Darius Britt, the heroine of the stripped-down time travel comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, can barely remember a time where she was hopeful or optimistic. Nowadays, she says, “I just expect the worst.” Darius is played by Aubrey Plaza, and it is not exactly casting against type; Plaza co-stars on Parks and Recreation, where her delightfully bone-dry line readings and biting deadpan never fail to beguile. Safety is her first starring role (she played supporting roles in Funny People and Scott Pilgrim), and it may as well be accompanied by fanfares. She’s got a terrific screen presence, and the camera simply loves her. She also picks her project well—this modest, stripped-down effort is utterly enchanting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

#Sundance Review: "For A Good Time Call..."

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The takeaway lesson of last summer’s Bridesmaids—that female-driven comedies can be dirty too, and profitable to boot—is one that was heard loud and clear in Hollywood board rooms and executive offices, and as sure as the day is long, we’re in for a steady stream of poorly-made scatological lady comedies. It’s the inevitable law of diminishing returns; don’t forget that There’s Something About Mary and American Pie begat Tomcats. Thankfully, the girl-heavy indie phone sex comedy For a Good Time Call is not the female Tomcats. It’s not Bridesmaids, either. But it’s a cute and likable picture with its own rambunctious charm.

#Sundance Review: "Sleepwalk With Me"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

A disclaimer: I am the target audience for Sleepwalk With Me. I heard Mike Birbiglia’s original sleepwalking story when it aired on This American Life, which I listen to faithfully every week. I saw him perform Sleepwalk With Me (and its follow-up, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend) in New York. I read the Sleepwalk With Me book. Frankly, I’ve become so familiar with this material that I was a bit hesitant about this new film adaptation of it; how far was he gonna stretch this stuff? But from the opening frames of the movie (which marks Birbiglia’s filmmaking debut), in which the comedian addresses the camera, instructing us to turn off our cell phones because they’re starting the movie, which is a true story (“I always have to tell people that”), I was in, all the way. Sleepwalk With Me is wonderful.

On DVD: "The Whistleblower"

The Whistleblower is a film whose first act is such a mishmash of oft-done scenes and clunky exposition that it’s a little surprising how engaged we are by its end. It stars Rachel Weisz, which is reason enough to see it, and it is (we are told in the opening title) “inspired by actual events,” which is reason enough to hesitate. But it is a film that rewards patience; director Larysa Kondracki gains confidence and force steadily throughout the film’s 118 minutes, and comes up with a pleasing and potent investigative thriller.

On DVD: "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 115 minutes, boy do I have the movie for you.

#Sundance Review: "2 Days in New York"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris was one of the nicest cinematic surprises of 2007, a film that sounded like either a) a vanity piece, or b) a JV retread of her Before Sunset/Sunrise pictures, but turned out to be c) an astonishingly assured romantic comedy with a sharp edge and some real depth. That element of surprise is no longer in play with her sequel, 2 Days in New York; she now has the opposite problem, of meeting expectations, which the new picture does not, not quite. But in all fairness, she set a pretty high bar the last time around, and this giddy follow-up offers numerous pleasures of its own.

#Sundance Review: "Nobody Walks"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Peter (John Krasinski) and Julie (Rosemary DeWitt) have a comfortable, seemingly idyllic marriage. He’s a sound designer for the movies; she’s a therapist. But, as he notes in a key moment, “marriage is complicated,” and sometimes a comfortable relationship means that those engaged in it are susceptible to an outside spark. In that situation, Martine (Olivia Thirlby), the hot 23-year-old artist from New York, is like a lit firecracker thrown into a slow gas leak.

#Sundance Review: "Save the Date"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Alison Brie co-stars on Community, the funniest show on network television. Lizzy Caplan and Martin Starr were on Party Down, no slouch in the laughs department itself; she also appeared in Hot Tub Time Machine, while he’s a member of the Apatow stock company. These are crackerjack comic actors, is the point, which leaves one wondering why director Michael Mohan would hire so many funny people and then trap them in a stillborn melodrama like Save the Date.

Monday, January 23, 2012

#Sundance Review: "Red Hook Summer"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Spike Lee shot his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, over 12 days in 1986. He shot his latest, Red Hook Summer, in just a week more, self-financing the low-budget picture and using a crew comprised partially of his NYU film school students. It is filled with whispers of his other works—not just in Lee’s brief reprisal of his “Mookie” role from Do the Right Thing, or She’s Gotta Have It’s Tracy Camilla Johns popping up as “Mother Darling” (apparently, Nola became a Jehovah’s Witness sometime in the last 25 years), but the thematic echoes of Crooklyn (a child’s-eye view of urban life), Jungle Fever (with its bible-thumping patriarch), and particularly Do the Right Thing (tensions boil in summertime Brooklyn—racial in that film, religious in this one).

On DVD: "Revenge of the Electric Car"

Chris Paine's 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? was an earnest and well-meaning documentary, though one that was ultimately harmed by its infomercial iconography and reliance on whiny, C-list celebrities as protagonists. His follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car, is a far stronger picture; given three years' access to the powers-that-be behind the auto industry, Paine's new film is less about full-throated advocacy and more about good, solid documentary storytelling. It's a switch that suits him well.

On DVD: "50/50"

50/50 is a serious-minded comedy about cancer, and writer Will Reiser and director Jonathan Levine’s greatest accomplishment is that it starts out being a good movie in spite of that premise, and ends up being a great one because of it. That’s a neat trick, if you can get away with it. It disarms you with its irreverence and candor; it distracts you with a romantic subplot that shouldn’t work, but does. And then, at its conclusion, it reveals itself as a genuinely emotional heartbreaker, and it wrings you out. Resier and Levine are a couplea sneaky bastards.

#Sundance Review: "Lay the Favorite"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Stephen Frears is a filmmaker who seldom gets the kind of accolades he should, and that may very well be because he’s a journeyman director in the classic mold. Like Howard Hawks or John Ford, he’s adept at moving between genres and styles, from neo-noir (The Grifters) to romantic comedy (High Fidelty) to costume drama (Dangerous Liaisons) to Hitchcockian thriller (Dirty Pretty Things); because he’s never been locked in to a specific type of film, he doesn’t get the attention of, say, a one-trick pony like Tim Burton. Since he can move so easily between styles, one would think him particularly adept at combining them within one picture. But his previous effort, Tamara Drewe, fumbled uneasily between comedy and drama, and his latest film, Lay the Favorite, integrates them with even less success. It is, frankly speaking, a bit of a mess.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

#Sundance Review: "Liberal Arts"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Liberal Arts is a really nice movie. This is the kind of statement that’s often thrown around pejoratively, or at the very least condescendingly—a pat on the movie’s head, if you will. But I’m merely trying to share the reserved but genuine warmth I felt towards the picture at its end; it’s not without its flaws, but it’s so very likable that you can’t get too worked up over them. It’s the second feature for How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor, whose Happythankyoumoreplease had some of the same issues. They’re as negligible here as they were there.

#Sundance Review: "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Ice-T is credited as director and executive producer of Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, but he’s also (in effect) the tour guide, serving as on-camera interviewer and off-camera narrator (his thoughts are laid over shots of the rapper/actor strolling cityscapes, framed like an action hero). When he talks to his subjects, the grandfathers and modern masters of hip-hop, he’s the cool guy having an interesting conversation; the casual dialogues recall the Fab 5 Freddy-hosted interview segments on Yo! MTV Raps. The trouble is, the film never accumulates into a cohesive documentary whole—it’s like watching 106 minutes of those Yo! segments, back to back to back, with both the pleasures and limitations you’d expect.

#Sundance Review: "Arbitrage"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

If there were ever a role that Richard Gere was born to play, Robert Miller, the high-profile financial whiz at the center of Nicholas Jarecki’s sleek pop thriller Arbitrage, may very well be it. Miller seems to have the world on a string; the picture begins with a warm family scene, his supportive wife (Susan Sarandon), successful children, and glowing grandkids gathered at their gorgeous Manhattan apartment for his 60th birthday. He blows out the candles (with the help of the little ones) and gives an adoring speech about how lucky he is to have a family such as this. And then he slips out of the apartment to go fuck his French artist mistress (Laetitia Costa). That’s not the only lie he’s got going; he’s also holding a huge loan to bolster his company’s books, in order to pass the audit required for a huge buyout that will make him even richer.

#Sundance Review: "Detropia"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

In 1930, Detroit was America’s fastest-growing city. Now, it is our fastest-shrinking. A family moves out of it, on average, every 20 minutes. Fully half of Detroit’s manufacturing jobs were lost in the last decade; they currently hover somewhere near 50% real unemployment.

Early in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s terrific documentary examination of the city, Detropia, a charismatic blogger named Crystal Starr wanders through one of Detroit’s many abandoned buildings. She waxes rhapsodic about her fascination with the past, with being inside a structure like this and thinking about those who walked its halls before here. A few scenes later, George goes for a drive. He’s the president of the United Auto Workers Local 22, and can point out the site of the former Cadillac Assembly Plant, where he got his first job in the auto industry decades ago. The plant is long gone now, of course. Starr and McGregor are, in these scenes, like mediums; the structures and spaces around them are ghosts, rattling their chains.

#Sundance Review: "The Raid"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The Raid begins with perhaps the most direct scene of exposition you’ve ever seen. A SWAT team is on their way to a morning raid. The destination is a tenement building that has been taken over by underworld boss Tama (Ray Sahetapy), who’s filled it with crooks and lowlifes—and a narcotics lab. Their plan (“we’ll take the place, floor by floor”), their foes, the dangers; it’s all laid out in almost comically straightforward dialogue, and while it may not be artful, at least it’s honest. This is all the stuff they’ve got to get out of the way. It’s what we need to know to get these 20 cops in the doors, which are then locked behind them as Tama comes over the PA and tells his sketchy residents that anyone who bags a cop can live there as long as they’d like, rent-free. “Now go to work,” he tells them. “And please, enjoy yourselves.”

#Sundance Review: "The Invisible War"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The first on-screen text in Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War informs us that all of the film’s statistics come from government sources. They are, to put it mildly, shocking. Over 20% of female vets have been sexually assaulted while serving our country. 200,000 assaults and rapes had been reported by 1991—and that was twenty years ago, and that only counts how many were reported. Fifteen percent of incoming Navy recruits entered the service with a previous history of sexual assault or rape; that’s twice the rate as among civilian population. It is an environment, Dick contends, that can attract a sexual predator—and that is set up to not only excuse the perpetrator, but to punish the victim. Most of the latter are discharged; most of the former are not. The Department of Defense knows it is a problem, and makes bold statements about “zero tolerance” policies. But nothing changes.

#Sundance Review: "Simon Killer"

Reviewed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Maybe the problem is the title. Simon Killer is a picture that leaves moviegoers adrift for longer than most will tolerate, telling its story with a style and pace that could most kindly be called deliberate. It unfolds in a series of languid scenes, most of them shot in single, unbroken takes; it’s dialogue is quiet and conversational; the plotting seems improvised. We meet Simon (Brady Corbet) soon after his arrival in Paris. “Your mother said you were having a hard time,” says the cousin he’s staying with, and that’s true; he recently broke up with his girlfriend of five years. “The last time we saw each other, you frightened me,” she writes to him in an email. You start to see what she means.