Saturday, April 21, 2012

#TFF Review: "Cheerful Weather for the Wedding"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

It would be difficult to imagine a film reaping greater benefit from the sudden outbreak of Downton Abbey Fever than Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, a period British drama set in a large aristocratic home, a film even courteous enough to include Elizabeth McGovern in the matriarchal role. But the film is bound to suffer in comparison with that acclaimed series—primarily because of director Donald Rice’s decision to eschew the Downton¬-style drollery and wit of the first act in order to focus on the rather less compelling romance at the center. Stars Felicity Jones and Luke Treadaway are charming leads, but we keep waiting for Rice to turn the movie back over to the supporting players.

#TFF Review: "The World Before Her"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her is a clear-eyed and powerful look and sexual identity and feminism in India, as seen through the eyes of two young women with very different ideas about empowerment. Ruhi is one of the twenty contestants for the Miss India title, one of the few opportunities for young women to find economic success and equality in her country. “I think of myself as a very modern woman, and I want freedom,” she says, simply enough. Prachi is seeking her freedom too, but via a more aggressive method: she has spent most of her life at camps run by Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the fundamentalist Hindu movement. She’s tough and strong, and she works the younger girls like a drill sergeant.

#TFF Review: "Graceland"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Ron Morales’s Graceland is centered on an idea so astonishingly clever, it almost presents a challenge; he risks not living up to the promise of his premise. Here it is: Marlon (Arnold Reyes) is the driver and general clean-up man for a wealthy, corrupt congressman (Menggie Cobarrubias). One afternoon, as he’s driving the two girls home, he is carjacked by kidnappers who hope to collect a healthy ransom by taking the congressman’s daughter. To show they mean business, they kill Marlon’s daughter, right in front of him. Trouble is, they’ve mix the girls up; they kill the valuable one. When they realize their mistake, Marlon’s instructions are clear: to keep his own daughter alive, he must keep what he knows about the rich man’s daughter to himself, and help deliver the ransom.

#TFF Review: "The Russian Winter"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

For such a collaborative medium, and one that combines so many different art forms into one smooth broth, films detailing the collaborative process are in disturbingly short supply; whether it’s the act of making music, creating theater, or crafting dance, most filmmakers either shuttle the actual act of creation off-screen, or presume it’s voodoo that arrives via methods unexplained, like some sort of divine intervention. If The Russian Winter offered nothing else, it would present several refreshingly straight-forward glimpses into the act of making music—an act that, for those of us not in possession of the gift to do so, seems like a miracle.

#TFF Review: "Free Samples"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Why isn’t Jess Weixler a giant, unstoppable movie star by now? She’s an effortlessly engaging performer, the kind of actor you’re immediately locked in to onscreen, and she’s great-looking, but in a slightly offbeat way that keeps you from being bored by her attractiveness. She first made an impression in the way-the-fuck-out-there 2007 horror/comedy Teeth, and she’s done some work since (she’s terrific in the absurdist buddy comedy Somebody Up There Likes Me, which played at SXSW last month), but she hasn’t really had a role that shown what she can do. Free Samples, a new comedy from director Jay Gammill, provides her with that role—and, unfortunately, does not give her a vehicle worthy of it.

#TFF Review: "Supporting Characters"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Supporting Characters is a film about filmmakers. I know, I know. If there’s one complaint about the indie film scene that genuinely holds water, it’s that there’s too damn many movies about making movies; it betrays an insulation, a bubble mentality, the notion that the only life experience these people have to draw from is the act of creating a film. The complaints are legitimate, and often valid. This is not enough of a reason to dismiss Supporting Characters, however, which is a droll and knowing little film that doesn’t get bogged down in the specifics. The broad strokes are relatable—and besides, the (thankfully unstated) themes of the picture reveal the choice of protagonists to be less arbitrary than it might seem.

Friday, April 20, 2012

#TFF Review: "First Winter"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

If the title First Winter recalls the Pilgrims, they would certainly be horrified by the activities of the people in Benjamin Dickinson’s film. Their days are filled with chanting and yoga and organic food; their nights, drugs and free love. Y’know, the usual. The word “commune” isn’t mentioned once—the isolated farmhouse the group of friends inhabit is referred to as “Paul’s Yoga Farm,” after their de facto leader (Paul Manza). It seems fairly idyllic, as far as those things go, until the power goes out, and a few members of the group take the only car into town for supplies, never to return. Their phone batteries die. Smoke billows from the city, many miles away. A dying transistor squawks snatches of news, none of it sounding good. And the loose collective of hipsters bears down.

#TFF Review: "As Luck Would Have It"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Well, this is getting a little silly, I scrawled in my notebook, there in the dark, as the man clung to the statue and swung out over the amphitheater on a crane. Ha ha, joke was on me, that’s the premise of the movie. Not the swing on the crane—the fall from it, which lays the poor guy on his back in the middle of a reconstruction area, with an iron rod stuck in his head. He’s still alive, but if he moves, he could die. A media circus ensues. Isn’t that always the way? The film is called As Luck Would Have It (La Chispa de la Vida in the original Spanish), and it’s the work of The Last Circus director Alex de la Iglesia, who directs it like Ace in the Hole as remade by Almodovar: an odd mix of soap and satire that never quite gels.

#TFF Review: "Elles"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Juliette Binoche is one of those actors who, yes, gets better looking with age, but there’s more to it than that—she also gets more interesting, both to look at and to watch work. The idea of lines on one’s face betraying “character” may be a cliché, but it feels true with her; she’s still achingly beautiful, but those lines give the sense of a life lived, and she carries that air in her acting, which has never been more economical or direct. She stars in Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles, a film which tells a story that is not difficult to predict, but none of what Binoche does seems predetermined; her spontaneity infects the film, and both are better for it.

#TFF Review: "Take This Waltz"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

As the cab pulls up to her home, she gazes upon it with a look that’s equal parts fear and dread. “I’m married,” she tells him. “Oh,” he replies. “That’s too bad.” It’s bad because they’ve hit it off so well on the plane and in the cab; it’s also bad because he gets out and walks to his home, which is basically across the street. Funny how you never notice a new person moving in, isn’t it?

#TFF Review: "El Gusto"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The true test of a great documentary is its ability to make you care about something you normally would have absolutely no interest in. I don’t watch high school basketball, but I couldn’t turn off Hoop Dreams; my lack of inherent curiosity in Bible salesmen didn’t make me any less rapt during Salesman . Safinez Bousbia’s El Gusto, for all of its good intentions and effort, doesn’t quite pass that test. It concerns a group of men who have dedicated their lives to Chaabi music, a guitar and lute-heavy mix of Andalusian, Berber, Arabic, and Flamenco sounds, and while these ears recognize and appreciate the craftsmanship of the music, it’s not really my cup of tea—and though El Gusto has a few good stories to tell, it ultimately didn’t change my mind, or make my initial impressions irrelevant in the way the best documentaries often do.

#TFF Review: "The Virgin, the Copts and Me"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

You gotta give Namir Abdel Messeeh this much: he’s honest. Before he even rolls the credits of his free-form documentary The Virgin, the Copts, and Me, he plays a voicemail of his producer criticizing him for wanting to make a movie that’s “all over the place,” asking (just before the title comes up, of course) “Is the film about the Copts, the Virgin, or you?” The “Copts” he’s referring to are Coptics, members of the Christian community in Egypt that never converted to Islam. The “Virgin” is the Virgin Mary, whom Coptics say appears to them as an apparition, most famously in Zeitoun in 1968. And the “me” is Messeeh, a French/Egyptian filmmaker and (to say the least) a skeptic.

#TFF Review: "Babygirl"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

When the stylish and striking comics-and-salsa opening credit sequence of Macdara Vallely’s Babygirl faded and the film proper began, this viewer sat up with a jolt: is that 16mm film? In a new indie? Believe it, kids; Babygirl was shot on good, old-fashioned, grainy Super 16, and it gives the picture a defining, throwback look, recalling earlier low-budget, coming-of-age New York movies like Straight Out of Brooklyn and Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. Like those films, it is not immune to the temptations of occasional broadness or cliché. But it has an authenticity and reality that’s admirable, and increasingly rare.

#TFF Review: "Headshot"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The unlucky hero, wrongfully accused. The beautiful girl who’s way out of his league, yet is inexplicably drawn to him. The would-be victim who turns out to be tougher and wiser than she looks. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot uses familiar, even cliché, elements of film noir (they even throw in a hooker with a heart of gold, God bless ‘em), but fuses those noir components with a decidedly Eastern action aesthetic. The result is a film of high style and assured cool, even if the storytelling gets a little gummy late in the game.

#TFF Review: "Xingu"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

First and foremost, Xingu is an adventure story—as is any film, really, that begins with a phrase as evocative as “I was 26 years old, looking for my place in the world.” The brothers Villas-Bôas—Orlando, Cláudio, and Leonardo—joined the “march west” into central Brazil in the early 1940s for life experience. But they found that the territory they’d been sent to clear and prepare for habitation was not quite so “unoccupied” as they had been led to believe: it was the home of indigenous Indian tribes, who had their own lives and cultures to protect. Miraculously, the Villas-Bôas brothers managed to keep them protected.

#TFF Review: "Planet of Snail"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Young-chan is blind and deaf. His wife, Soon-ho, is a little person, standing roughly half his size. This sounds, it must be said, like the set-up for the most insufferably twee romantic comedy ever. It’s not—it’s a documentary by Yi Seung-jun with an uncommon stillness at its center. In the film’s opening sequences, we watch the couple’s routines and interactions, which Seung-jun presents quietly and without comment; they live together, eat together, work together. He goes to school, and she sits at his side, tapping on his fingers to communicate. He exercises in their home, and she warns him when he’s about to go into a wall. She can’t reach a light-bulb that has gone out, so he has to change it, which is harder than you’d think when you can’t see what you’re doing.

#TFF Review: "Side by Side"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The motion picture itself has been an attractive subject to documentary filmmakers for years, but Side by Side may be the most “inside baseball” movie-about-movies to date—and that is its strength. Ostensibly a look at the current struggle (and transition) between traditional photochemical film and digital moviemaking, it is actually an exhaustively detailed “state of the cinema” thesis. For those of us who care about this stuff, it’s a fascinating 100-minute think piece; the arguments are well articulated by exactly the voices you want to hear from. Writer/director Christopher Kenneally only falters when he tries to open up the tent.

In Theaters: "The Moth Diaries"

Consider, if you will, the case of Mary Harron, the splendid writer/director behind I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, and The Notorious Bettie Page. Her films are uncommonly intelligent, challenging, and difficult to classify; as a result, like many an iconoclastic female director (the examples of Kimberly Pearce and Lisa Cholodenko also leap to mind), she tends to go rather a long time between films. Her new picture, The Moth Diaries, is her first since Bettie Page clear back in 2005, and as good as it is to have her back, I can only wonder how much longer we would’ve had to wait for a new Harron movie that was any good. As it is, it’s kind of depressing to see a filmmaker as gifted as this one slumming in a picture so shamelessly pitched to the Twi-hards as this one.

In Theaters: "Darling Companion"

It's been nearly a decade since Lawrence Kasdan's last film, and for good reason--it was the disastrous Dreamcatcher. In the intervening years, I'd all but assumed he'd turned over the family business to his kids (son Jake has put together an extensive body of film and television work, while son Jonathan just had a picture at Sundance). But here's a new film, Darling Companion, written with his wife Meg, and featuring the kind of enviable ensemble cast that he made his name with in films like The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, and I Love You To Death: Diane Keaton, Richard Jenkins, Dianne Weist, Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Sam Shepard, and (of course) Kevin Kline. That's a fine cast, and the film is handsomely photographed in Colorado and Utah. It's all so nice. Too nice. Deathly nice.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

#TFF Review: "Chicken with Plums"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

The opening credits of Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s Chicken with Plums are rendered in a black and white animation style familiar from their previous collaboration, the international art house hit Persepolis. And then the credits end, fading to reveal (gasp) live action. Yes, their new picture—though based, as Persepolis was, on one of Satrapi’s graphic novels—has boldly transitioned into the world of flesh-and-blood actors, while maintaining her distinctive voice and style. What they have come up with is, I think, an even finer film.

#TFF Review: "Polisse"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Polisse, the Cannes Jury Prize winner from writer/director/actor Maïwenn, opens with on-screen text, informing the viewer that the film is based upon “real life cases of the Paris CPU (Child Protection Unit).” You almost expect to hear the Law & Order sting after that, but the film itself functions as (among other things) a sharp repuke to the cleanliness and precision of television procedurals; it is more interested in reflecting the messiness of life, which does not wind itself up in 47-minute chunks.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On DVD: "Angels Crest"

Gaby Dellal’s Angels Crest has a palpable feeling of unease in its opening scenes, as young father Ethan (Thomas Dekker) loads his three-year-old son Nate into his pickup truck and drives him out to the woods so they can watch the snow fall. But Nate falls asleep on the way, and Ethan sees a deer he wants to track. So he leaves the heat on, locks the door, and leaves the kid in the truck. No points for guessing that this idea doesn’t work out well, for anybody.

The utter helplessness of the scenes that follow, as the father wanders the woods, screaming his son’s name, can’t help but hit the viewer on some level; likewise the discovery of the little boy’s body. But after that, Dellal quickly loses control of the narrative; much wailing and gnashing of teeth follows, underscored by sad music and overstated by swing-for-the-fences acting, particularly by the tic-heavy Dekker and by Lynn Collins as mother Cindy, prone to bouts of screeching.

On DVD: "JB Smoove: That's How I Dooz It"

JB Smoove is so endlessly funny on Curb Your Enthusiasm—such a perfect counterpoint to Larry David, such an effortlessly brilliant scene partner and foil—and has brightened up so many otherwise stillborn movie comedies (Hall Pass, The Sitter), it’s impossible to approach his first stand-up special, J.B. Smoove: That’s How I Dooz It, with anything less than high hopes. And it gives this writer no pleasure to report that those hopes are dashed fairly early on. We have seen, in his other work, that Smoove is a disarming comic actor and a boisterous improvisationalist. What he is not, at least based on this special, is a similarly gifted stand-up.

He’s a lively one, make no mistake about that; he does a high-energy opening, dancing and playing virtual DJ, and continues to give the performance his all. He’s a naturally funny guy, with fast-paced delivery, musical cadences, and a deep and admirable love for profanity. And he’s fun to watch; there’s a wiry, loose-limbed ease to his stage presence—a theatricality, almost. But the energy and enthusiasm of the presentation can’t hide the fact that, more often than not, the material is just plain weak: poorly written, sloppily constructed, heavy and repetition and volume but light on wit (call it the Dane Cook problem).

The topics are wide-ranging—cops, the human body, cooking, sex, sex tapes, working out, perfume, high heels, pile-driving, drinking, relationships, and King Kong’s “johnson"—and the transitions aren’t exactly clean, causing a sensation of the comic constantly stopping and restarting. His point of view is problematic as well; the occasional, casual sexism, for example, is unfortunate (“Your lady got to know how to cook!” he insists, as if he’s Henny Youngman and it’s 1954).

There are funny bits, here and there; he notes that old vans are the only ones good for kidnapping, due to the slow automatic doors of today’s models (“I told you,” he says, taking on the voice of a frustrated criminal, “1980 or lower!”), and there’s a great chunk about the discouragements of going to the gym, where everything is “So. Damn. Heavy. Ain’t no light shit in here?” But other pieces flail and fail, or simply drag past their peak (an initially inspired bit about outrunning cops goes on about twice as long as it should), and once the audience has gotten past the thrill of seeing a funny guy from the TV, you can sense that he’s struggling to keep them, giggling for reassurance, flop-sweating to try and make the material work. When a comic’s persona is as rooted in fierce confidence as his, that can do real damage to an already troubled set.

Smoove is a consistently funny presence in films and on television, and throws himself into his stage act with admirable abandon; he works hard over the course of That’s How I Dooz It’s hour, and you want to reward that hard work with bigger laughs. But it must be said: though gifted performer, he could use a lot of work as a writer.

"JB Smoove: That's How I Dooz It" is out now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On DVD: "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.

Put simply, he's a sex addict. He spends his nights on the make, cruising for a fix; if he can't pick up a girl, then a prostitute (or maybe a boy) will do. He spends his days at work, but he's not much of a working man; he slips away for afternoon encounters or to masturbate in the restroom, and his computer has so much porn on it that it is eventually taken away. So yes, he's got a problem, but what's masterful about McQueen's approach to the character is his refusal to moralize, or to snicker. The lines are very thin indeed—there are moments that may ring uncomfortably true for many, many men (and women) in the audience. Taken individually, those are not the acts of an addict. Are they?

Monday, April 16, 2012

On DVD: "Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol"

From the time it was announced, there was an air of slight desperation about the fourth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Star Tom Cruise is pushing 50, and the last entry had somewhat underperformed, having the misfortune to open less than a year after all the couch-jumping and other weirdness that left American feeling a little uneasy about its biggest box-office star. His subsequent films haven’t done all that hot either (remember Knight & Day?), so it was time to go back to the well. From the casting of Jeremy Renner (maybe he’s being groomed to take over!) to the emo key art (hoodies!) to the trailer music (Eminem! See, edgy!), one couldn’t shake the feeling that Cruise and company knew that they had to make this one count, and were working a little too hard at it.

What strange is how none of that comes across on-screen. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol is a smooth, confident, masterfully executed spy thriller, a crackerjack popcorn entertainment that’s bursting with neat toys, slick suits, and good fun. It’s sleek and pleasurable, and marks a live-action debut by Pixar favorite Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) that is astonishingly assured.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Your Links for the Week

From Huffington Post:
Capital Politics and Herzog's Into the Abyss

It would be tough to pick the most chilling moment from the 20 Republican primary debates, in which television viewers watched debate audiences boo an active duty American soldier, cheer waterboarding, and try to egg Ron Paul into letting our country's uninsured die in the streets. But for sheer bloodthirsty, fire-and-pitchfork mob barbarism, the clear winner came in the September 7 debate at the Reagan Presidential Library, in which the crowd whooped it up for execution.

Your Republican Friends Are Going to Love Lockout

Countless observers have described Lockout, the latest dumb-as-a-doorknob action flick from writer/producer Luc Besson, as "Taken set in space" -- including the prolific scribe himself. But if its tough-guy-rescuing-Maggie-Grace premise is lifted from Besson's 2010 hit, that's merely one of the many other films echoing throughout the futuristic space prison at its center; there's just as much Escape from New York, Die Hard, and Demolition Man as Taken in there, calling up memories of Reagan-Bush I era action cinema, and the politics of that period. What's striking, when watching Lockout (aside from what a terrible, lunk-headed movie it is), is how frequently and explicitly it flaunts its anti-Democrat -- and anti-Obama -- point of view.

From Flavorwire:
Open Thread: Movies or TV? Or Both? Or Neither?

James Wolcott loses me in the first line of his much-discussed Variety Fair piece “Prime Time’s Graduation,” which is pretty impressive, as far as those things go. “After I fell out of love with movies,” he writes, and I’ve checked out already — even more so with the parenthetical that follows: “(new movies, that is — classic Hollywood I still adulate)”. Oh goody, he’s one of those, one of the overbearing boors who insists nothing worthwhile has come out of Hollywood since Jaws, or Ben-Hur, or (if you’re a real, Bogdanovich-style purist) since the takeover of the talkies. But no, it’s worse: Mr. Wolcott is one of these inexplicable “TV is better than movies” people, and because he’s writing for one of the few remaining major glossies (to-do: write my “movies are better than magazines” piece), we now have to have this whole cultural conversation about whether television has, in fact, “surpassed” the motion picture.

Video Essay: “Watching the Detectives: Our Favorite Movie Private Eyes”

Perhaps the most exciting Blu-ray release of the month is Paramount’s anniversary edition of Roman Polanski’s classic film noir homage Chinatown, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year. Polanski’s film — from a celebrated screenplay by Robert Towne — told the story of private investigator Jake Gittes (played to perfection by Jack Nicholson), and ended up revitalizing the private eye genre, which has continued to fascinate viewers to this very day. In our latest video essay, we’ve compiled over two dozen of our favorite movie detectives in tribute to one of our favorite movie genres. Check it out after the jump.

Hypotheticals: Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon’

Here at Flavorwire, we love to engage in what Marcellus Wallace called “contemplating the ifs” — imagining a pop culture landscape filled with movies that never happened, adaptations that never came to pass, and performances that were not to be. In “Hypotheticals,” our new, semi-regular feature, we’ll hone in on a single project that never was (a film, a television show, an album, a book, anything really) and explain why it went away, and what we might’ve missed. First up: Stanley Kubrick’s long-gestating, never-realized film version of the life of Napoleon.

12 of the Most Memorable On-Screen Impersonations

Playing a well-known and well-documented actor, musician, or public figure can’t be easy, even for the best of actors — they not only have to assemble a serviceable performance in the conventional sense, but must also work up a convincing impersonation. They’re playing people that we’re used to seeing, whose look and speech have become familiar and distinctive, and must thus be replicated. The great performances in biographical movies must also then transcend the mere imitation, and create a compelling character beyond that. After the jump, we’ve assembled a dozen of the actors who memorably got into someone else’s skin; add your own in the comments.

This Week in Trailers: ‘Looper,’ ‘The Magic of Belle Isle,’ ‘The Samaritan,’ and More

Every Friday here at Flavorwire, we like to gather up the week’s new movie trailers, give them a look-see, and rank them from worst to best — while taking a guess or two about what they might tell us (or hide from us) about the movies they’re promoting. We’ve got seven trailers for you this week, including the latest from Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Simon Pegg, Morgan Freeman, and Samuel L. Jackson. Check ‘em all out after the jump, and share your thoughts in the comments.