Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Director Ava Duvernay smartly avoids the usual obstacles filmmakers have encountered when bringing the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the screen. Selma avoids all the pitfalls of the traditional biopic by instead focusing on a particularly reprehensible flashpoint in the American Civil Rights struggle, the events surrounding March 7, 1965, "Bloody Sunday," and how they ultimately led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By homing in on this historical moment, Duvernay is able to give us a snapshot of the era, put us in the shoes of African American activists, the Southern whites hanging on to their fading power structure, even the President himself, Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). In Selma, Duvernay has crafted a singular cinematic experience that stands alone among those attempting to communicate the turmoil of the Civil Rights era and the power of the Reverend Dr. King, powerfully played by David Oyelowo. Selma is absorbing, measured, and eloquent, much like the man at its center.
Monday, December 22, 2014
Blu-ray Reviews: Barker Lost & Found, a Pair of Sci-Fi Epics, Criterion x 3, and a Twilight Time Bonus
by Tony Dayoub
Wow, it's been a long time, even for me. I just started a second gig which is keeping me away from these pages more than I'd like, but hopefully this will be the first of a number of posts that will appear here with more regularity. Anyway, here are some Blu-rays I've been watching while I diligently fulfill some of my end-of-year critic vote duties. Except for Nightbreed's, all of these entries sport actual screen captures by moi.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
The mistake made with the holiday release of Penguins of Madagascar is a common one. Expanding the franchise by spinning off its comic relief into his/her/their own project rarely works. It's the reason Seinfeld's Kramer never got his own show. Or the reason Happy Days floundered once Ron Howard left the show and it became all about the Fonz. Eccentric sidekicks are often so potent that they overwhelm the story, and it's no different with Madagascar's four lovable clowns, Skipper (Tom McGrath), Kowalski (Chris Miller), Rico (Conrad Vernon) and Private (Christopher Knights).
Sunday, November 23, 2014
by Tony Dayoub
"Nichols discovered within himself a natural talent for drawing good work out of actors and for guiding playwrights through rewrites without making them feel threatened or trampled. He also found, to his own surprise, a kind of emotional comfort at being at the center of the action. 'I think people try to become famous because they think: If you can get the world to revolve around you, you won't die,' he remarked to a reporter. The comment typified the way Nichols handled himself with a press corps that was insatiably curious about his life with and without Elaine May—it was fast, funny, and so offhand that nobody could be certain whether it was self-revelation or just a good line."
- writer Mark Harris in his essential Pictures at a Revolution, describing one of the directors at the vanguard of the New Hollywood
Recommended Films - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Working Girl, Regarding Henry, Wolf, The Birdcage, Closer
And an even better list of titles I haven't seen but should - Catch-22, The Day of the Dolphin, The Fortune, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge, Primary Colors, Wit (TV), Angels in America (TV), Charlie Wilson's War
Sunday, November 16, 2014
One of my favorite comedies of the year is the gloriously misanthropic Listen Up Philip. Sadly, I missed it while it was playing at this year's New York Film Festival because it screened the day after my flight back home. But it's now playing on VOD and opened here in Atlanta (at the Plaza Theater) this past Friday. Jason Schwartzman plays what might be the douchiest among his repertoire of arrogant, self-absorbed characters. Promising young novelist Philip Lewis Friedman is someone who looks for any way to sabotage the great things he has going for him. He's the kind of jerk that finds it notable that another young, more famous rival killed himself not because of the inherent tragedy but because he turned down a chance to profile the author in what would have been the man's last, and therefore most attention-getting, interview.
Friday, November 7, 2014
The idea of Disney exploiting its newly acquired Marvel properties for an animated film is a great on its face. The first of these films, but hardly its last I believe, is Big Hero 6, a cute superhero movie that should prove to be a font of unending merchandising opportunities directed to young boys the way Frozen has been to young girls. Cute as it is however , Big Hero 6 still comes up short as a children's fantasy.
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
An adventure into time, space and the human soul, Interstellar is more than reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But any similarities only heighten the sense that the nearly 50-year-old Stanley Kubrick science fiction classic may never be surpassed as the definitive movie on space exploration. And for director Christopher Nolan, that's a problem. Interstellar, with its integral dramatic dependence on concepts like the Einstein's theory of relativity and Newtonian physics, is Nolan's most significant stab at coherence. Yet the increased focus on the film's attendant technobabble only serves to demonstrate how inept Nolan is at advancing a story with anything that might resemble logic.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Elements of Peeping Tom, Network, Taxi Driver and a powerhouse performance by Jake Gyllenhaal are all fused together by veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy in his directorial debut, the jittery, sleazy Nightcrawler. A gaunt-looking Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a twitchy bottom-feeder with aspirations, but for what? Even he's not certain. At the start of the film, he is busted by a security guard as he steals copper wiring, scraps of metal, and even the guard's wristwatch after he manages to overpower the man. But a transaction for the stolen items sets Bloom on a different path after his polite eagerness isn't enough to convince the buyer to overlook his thievery and hire him, even for free. Before long Bloom has a chance meeting with Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a scumbag who scans police airwaves to arrive first on the scene and shoot video he sells for top dollar to bottom-rated KWLA's news team. The entrepreneurial Bloom is soon teaching himself how to shoot and edit ratings-grabbing news packages for KWLA's ambitious director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo).
Monday, October 27, 2014
In recent years, the American independent film has become as much a genre onto itself as it is a label distinguishing it as a work made outside the Hollywood system. The Sundance Festival movie in particular was burdened with all sorts of expectations which over time created a stereotype called the "indie." Featuring a cast of young up and coming actors, peppered with a few veterans working for little pay in the hopes of breaking out of some sort of career rut, the worst kind of indie generally recalls a special moment in a young man or woman's life, weighted with a deep, life altering lesson, all under an acoustic score by some folkie/emo instrumentalist who possesses enough street cred to sell some soundtrack albums. Where "independent" once connoted originality, "indie" now simply means lo-fi. That's why Whiplash is so refreshing. 2014's Sundance U.S. Audience and Grand Jury Prize winner is a vibrant, jazz-inflected drama that's also an anti-indie. As it goes into general release this week, Whiplash is poised to take awards season by storm.
Friday, October 24, 2014
"Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see." That's a piece of advice offered in Stonehearst Asylum to the film's ostensible hero, Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess). It's also the most important suggestion made by author Edgar Allan Poe to his reader in the droll short story that the movie is loosely based on, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether." Directed by Brad Anderson (The Call), Stonehearst Asylum is more clever than scary. But there's a lot to be said for a well plotted thriller in a time when too many horror movies hinge more on shocking their audiences instead of getting under their skin.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a rare and unexpected delight from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, a filmmaker who has made a habit of producing dense, multi-plot storylines that converge in their final moments to offer some Great Truth. Birdman somehow feels both narrower and more transcendent. When the score's percussion takes over, a stifling anxiety sets in. When its symphonic sounds take precedence, Birdman soars. There is no need to clumsily converge at the conclusion because the linkage between Birdman's subplots is already baked into its script, a tale of the backstage chaos that ensues when former blockbuster action star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) mounts a serious comeback in a new venue, Broadway.
Friday, October 17, 2014
Many years ago, I made the mistake of dismissing The Nightmare Before Christmas as a visually spectacular but hollow animated musical. Yeah, I didn't get it. It isn't that nostalgia has made the movie feel closer to a classic or that over time its style has eclipsed its substance. In a fundamental way, I've come to realize, its style is its substance. I shall not make the same mistake with The Book of Life. While not the animation game-changer that The Nightmare Before Christmas may have been, The Book of Life perhaps has even more room to grow into a classic in the coming years. And curiously it has a similar pedigree.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Writer-director David Ayer crafts another fine look at the way shared violent experiences form a tenuous brotherhood among men with Fury. Set in the final days of World War II's European Theater, the movie follows a Sherman tank, christened "Fury," and its battle-hardened crew led by Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). Among Wardaddy's crew are the God-fearing "Bible" (Shia LaBeouf), wisecracking "Gordo" (Michael Peña), and the crude "Coon-Ass" (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their drivers, the tight-knit unit is saddled with a virtual rookie plucked from the clerical corps, Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Norman is our way into this predictably episodic depiction of the horrors of war, one that becomes a surprisingly stylish and at times contemplative suspense film punctuated by short, intense bursts of violence.
by Tony Dayoub
"Sayles could pull a performance out of a dog. I'm serious. He was just amazing. The world could fall apart and he remained on neutral."
- a humble but talented Elizabeth Peña on John Sayles, who directed
her to her best performance in the highly underrated Lone Star
her to her best performance in the highly underrated Lone Star
Recommended Films - They All Laughed, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, La Bamba, Blue Steel, Jacob's Ladder, Lone Star, Rush Hour, The Incredibles
And an even better list of titles I haven't seen but should - El Super, Crossover Dreams, *batteries not included, The Waterdance, Tortilla Soup, Transamerica, The Lost City
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Going in, documentary I Am Ali has two strikes against it. It tries to distill the entire life of boxing's best known heavyweight champion into a film with a scant 111-minute running time, and it depends too much on his closest friends and family to do so. On the plus side, it is the first film to revolve so heavily on personal recordings of interactions with his family made by Muhammad Ali himself. The result is a substantially whitewashed account of the life of the Greatest. At best, I Am Ali is a primer for the few that a long line of documentaries about this extremely well documented sports and Civil Rights figure has thus far eluded. At worst, I Am Ali is a forgettable CliffsNotes-style profile that hits many of the landmark moments in Ali's life while avoiding the dissenting points of view concerning his controversial stances on the Vietnam war and the Black Muslim movement.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Two of the best documentaries playing at the 52nd New York Film Festival couldn't be more different except that they are each by titans of their field, the creepy Tales of the Grim Sleeper by Nick Broomfield and the ebullient Iris by Albert Maysles.
Saturday, October 4, 2014
Inherent Vice is possibly the most confusing of all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films. That's saying something considering he directed the enigmatic The Master and Punch-Drunk Love. At least in the case of those films one feels like one can get some kind of a grip on their respective themes because Anderson is a pretty accessible person and wrote the material himself. Inherent Vice is a different animal altogether. Adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, one can guess (I haven't read it) that coherence was sacrificed in favor of faithfulness to the book's feel, consistency maybe never having existed on the page in the first place. In any event, the incoherence is the least of one's concerns. When Anderson makes a film, he plays the long game, knowing... no... insisting that one see the movie again and again. It's what makes Inherent Vice so compelling. One wants to wallow in its noirish, surfer-gone-to-seed, atmosphere and revisit the movie again and again, with the hopes that its central mystery might be clarified in an eventual viewing.
Friday, October 3, 2014
A tour-de-force performance by character actor Timothy Spall brightens the otherwise languid Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh's biopic of English painter J.M.W. Turner. Although filled with terrific performances from recurring members of Leigh's acting troupe, Mr. Turner revels a mite too long in the gorgeous landscapes that inspired Turner (as shot by cinematographer Dick Pope). At times, it allows one to consider the effect such vistas had on Turner's art. Often, though, the movie borders on the ponderous and only Spall's earthy grumbles and snorts keep us tethered to the movie's titular subject.
Controversial Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini finally gets a kind of a biopic in Pasolini, starring Willem Dafoe. A journalist, poet, and philosopher among other things, the homosexual Pasolini is a tough subject to try to encapsulate in a film, especially one with as short a running time as this one's 87 minutes. Director Abel Ferrara, no stranger to controversy himself, wisely chooses to simply focus on the final days leading up to Pasolini's lurid murder. The resulting film is, like the director, a study of contradictions and not just a little perplexing.
by Tony Dayoub
Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion is the debut episode of the first Star Wars animated series to debut on Disney XD since its parent company acquired the Lucasfilm franchise. Think of it as a Firefly take on characters populating the fringe of the Star Wars universe and you'll get an idea of what it feels like. The irony is that Joss Whedon's short-lived Firefly was itself a western outlaw take on the original Star Wars that focused on a Han Solo-like smuggler and the crew of his ship (a Millennium Falcon in all but name). In Star Wars Rebels, young viewers are meant to identify with Ezra Bridger, a clever ruffian who scavenges his way through life on the Empire-occupied planet Lothal unaware that he has greater powers than he realizes.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Hungary's The Notebook (Le Grand Cahier) is another in a long line of films in which Nazi occupation is viewed through the eyes of children. The Tin Drum and Au revoir les enfants are two that have been reviewed here. Like with those movies, The Notebook is structured in an episodic fashion. Usually, this gives a clearer if somewhat simplified perspective on the horrors of war. But there's a sadistic streak in The Notebook's two central characters, unnamed Twins (László and András Gyémánt), that marks it as far more harrowing film contemplating how exposure to violence only begets more violence.
Friday, September 26, 2014
[A disclaimer: Though I saw Gone Girl at an Atlanta press screening, I'm posting it alongside the rest of my coverage of the New York Film Festival since it is tonight's opening night gala selection. It opens in theaters across the country Friday, October 3rd.]
Among director David Fincher's movies, Gone Girl might end up ranking as well executed a puzzle film as The Game. It sounds like a simple statement, but there's a lot to unpack in it. Like The Game, Gone Girl is excellent, trashy fun; no more, no less. It's hard to see how Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn's bestseller, will have much of a chance for any major awards outside of the technical categories with one glaring exception, Rosamund Pike, whose part here is star-making. More on that later. As in Fight Club, Gone Girl is so dependent on its plot intricacies that one can't write much about it without giving something away. So trust me. This review will tread carefully. Finally, even for those who have read the novel, Fincher constructs Gone Girl in such a way that, like Zodiac, and again Fight Club and The Game, multiple viewings shall yield more and more rewards for the viewer.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Blu-ray Reviews: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), The Innocents (1961), Macbeth (1971) and Star Trek: The Compendium (2009/2013)
by Tony Dayoub
Fall box office offerings are starting to heat up as we head into awards season. That means Blu-ray reviews will be more infrequent, so forgive the odd selection I've cobbled together for this one (and enjoy each Blu-ray's respective screen grabs).
Sunday, September 21, 2014
I never watched the original Edward Woodward TV series Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer is based on. As a critic colleague reminded me, "Well, it was for the blue-hairs." And so it probably was, despite having a high quotient of violence and a killer main theme by the Police drummer Stewart Copeland. The new remake isn't much different, except maybe for abandoning Copeland's classic pulsating bit of electronica. Fuqua reunites with his Training Day star Denzel Washington and further strips down a premise that's already pretty spare to begin with. What's left is so thin and empty, a cloud of vapor would feel more substantial in comparison.
Friday, September 19, 2014
The last time we saw private eye Matthew Scudder, he had a sunnier disposition and resembled Jeff Bridges. This was in his first film appearance, 1986's nasty 8 Million Ways to Die (Hal Ashby's muddled final movie, written by Oliver Stone and a pseudonymous Robert Towne). Nearly 30 years on, Liam Neeson plays the detective in the unbelievably grimmer A Walk Among the Tombstones. It's a serviceable throwback to cult detective thrillers from the 70s like The Long Goodbye or Night Moves, movies with a flawed antihero at the center of a mystery that's really just an excuse to meet a cast of quirky supporting characters. So who better to direct it than Scott Frank, screenwriter for a number crime films based on literary potboilers and chock full of such eccentrics: Get Shorty, Heaven's Prisoners, Out of Sight, and the never-aired pilot for Hoke.
Friday, September 12, 2014
Sweet, sincere and romantic, if ever there were an LGBT-themed film with crossover potential Love Is Strange would be a prime candidate. Sure, there has been Brokeback Mountain, Milk, The Kids Are Alright and any number of other ones that have struck a chord with audiences, particularly in the arthouse circuit. But there is something sweeping about Ira Sachs' Love Is Strange, something to which everyone in a deep, committed relationship can relate to without the movie betraying its own identity to pander to a straight audience. While "betray" may be too strong a word to use regarding the previously mentioned movies they did play to the stands, so to speak—Brokeback by emphasizing homosexual alienation; Milk by emphasizing its countercultural aspect; Kids by making the story a triangle featuring a straight male figure as a possible point of identification.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Michaël R. Roskam's The Drop doesn't exactly venture into new territory. Its story places two small-scale hustlers, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) and his cousin, known to all as Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), at the center of a treacherous and complicated scheme right out of Noir 101. Now owned by Chechen mobsters, the eponymous Cousin Marv's Bar is robbed by two dim assailants on the night it happens to be the assigned drop bar receiving all of the Chechens' protection money collected at other bars. This instantly puts Bob and Cousin Marv in hot water with the bar's deadly owners who suspect an inside job. Though the robbers were masked, Bob notices a curious detail: one of the thieves was wearing a stopped watch. Mentioning it to lead investigator Detective Torres (John Ortiz) inexplicably raises Cousin Marv's ire and sets him against his soft-spoken relative.
Saturday, September 6, 2014
by Tony Dayoub
If the first few episodes of Sons of Anarchy's final season are any indication, then the series is going down in the same manner it started: as a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, with the eponymous motorcycle club's royal family and their dysfunctional dynamics at the heart of what ails its crown prince. Jax (Charlie Hunnam) is as dark and vengeful this season as he was bright and optimistic just before his wife Tara's shocking demise. SAMCRO is licking their wounds while preparing to once again make their ascendance in their town of Charming. And Jax's mother, Gemma (Katey Sagal), is alternately remorseful and gratified that sacrificing Tara allowed her to preserve the strength of her two fractured families: Jax and his young sons and the motorcycle club.
CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL POST AT SLANT MAGAZINE
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Early in the documentary Code Black there is this graphic and harrowing shot above. More than a dozen emergency medics and nurses work on a shooting victim as the director, narrator and the film's principal subject, Ryan McGarry explains, "If you're an outsider, this looks like total chaos. But I see unity in that chaos. There's a team here coming together to save someone's life." It's a flabbergasting statement to say the least. But as Code Black unfolds we learn that this is no ordinary emergency room. It's C-Booth, a cramped, very public space in LA County Hospital that has the dual distinction of being the nation's very first emergency room and its busiest. McGarry started documenting his time there as a first-year resident, way before he ever decided to turn the footage into a film. What he turned in, though, is polished bordering on slick, a sharp contrast to the frequently catastrophic roughness the doctors at C-Booth encounter daily.