Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up In The Air


Ryan Bingham embodies a new version of the American Dream - placeless, unfettered upward mobility - he travels around the country firing people until he runs up against two threats -- the internet's promise that even airlines and frequent flyer miles can be obsolesced by it's placeless promise of progress and the threat of a woman who seems his perfect match. Reitman is at his best in this film -- the stylistic strength he's shown before is intact, but here, they reach much more maturity, depth and evenness.

++++1/2

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The TV Set


Though I've been a longtime fan of Jake Kasdan, movies made about Hollywood, and Network (to which TV Set develops many homages), this film never felt worth my while, with the stakes of mass dumbing-down vs. middle aged comfort for our Judd-Apatow-alike-Protagonist, it felt a bit too kitchen-sink, and ultimately not serious enough about the serious points it would like to make. The ironic shrugging tone didn't fit well with the classically tragic ending - maybe I like my dark comedy a bit less broad and ultimately, actually, serious about something.

++1/2

Where the Wild Things Are


In my mind it doesn't matter that this film is an adaptation, with a tone this singular, a story this simple, characters this rich, and visuals this delightful, it works with a cinematic panache that I've never seen in a children's story before. Until I loved my way this movie, I don't think I was fully cognizant of the truth obscured by almost all children's movies, but embraced by this one: Life is disappointing and sad, but that doesn't mean that it can't also be full of meaning and beauty.

+++++

Monday, December 28, 2009

Inglorious Basterds


Tarantino's Nazi-Revenge-Fantasy interweaves the quests of three delightfully warped human beings as their goals become interlocked in a nail-biting, suspense-driven finale. While the brilliance of this film is evenly realized in the writing (structure!), the direction (the mise en scene! the camerawork!) and the performances, the joy of watching it is a pure human cinematic experience; every moment I found myself caring so much, wanting so much, fearing so much, and over and over again? delighting so much.

++++1/2

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fog of War


I didn't expect to like Robert McNamara as much as I did in this documentary that explores what he has learned about war through his involvement in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Errol Morris is at his best, using visual tropes that are both inventive and unexpected while carefully crafting a nuanced portrait of a man that is both hard to resist and hard to embrace.

++++

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Zombieland


This film is predictable in the best ways you can imagine, with strong characters making every moment worthwhile, and an exhuberant pace and visual style that keeps the audience's mind far from the Zombieland of media-saturated contemporary life. While the film hints at deeper darker meanings, it never belabors the points, nor does it make the connections perfectly, but it's fun... really fun.

++++

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

500 Days of Summer


While this break-up rom-com hits every conventional number it should, the structure and writing are masterfully crafted for maximum effect, the art direction, music and cinematography nail that sweet spot just past stylized and just before twee; the ensemble is funny and sweet and the leads create chemistry that matches their (well-established) individual abilities to rock the screen. (MILD SPOILER AHEAD) My minor disappointments have to do with the (literal) last word in the script and the uplift it signifies; I bear no grudge against the uplift per-se but in this case, it seems like a betrayal of the best message of the film, and it cements a (at least mild) patriarchal and regressive attitude toward women and the meaning of "true love."

++++

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Little Dieter Needs to Fly


Herzog's recounting of Dieter Dengler's harrowing crash, capture, escape and rescue manages to endear the unique specificity of Dieter's humanity to the audience more than allowing us very close to the story or experience itself. Though he employs many inventive devices (taking us through the footsteps of the experiences, hiring locals to "play" his captors), I felt the devices push me farther the experience and emotion of the story which had the effect of focusing most of my viewing on the person Dieter is now and how distant he seems from the whole experience, too.

+++

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Harlan County USA


This Oscar winning documentary blew me away with it's pastiche of protest music, raw human spirit, collective struggle and sense of authentic place. The movie astonished me both because it successfully transcended so many conventions of cinematic storytelling (no main character, only vague allusions to sequentiality), but it also successfully located me in a very specific world and depicted many human beings doing their best, doing true things and speaking with the sort of local eloquence that is rarely found in any contemporary public sphere.

+++++

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Make-Out With Violence


The Dougal Brothers (a media-making collective) have created a sumptuous feast in their first feature: a coming of age zombie flick crafted from (the unexpected combination of) generous portions of John Hughes 80s teen-angst and Tarkovsky's Solaris. Through the entire experience, I experienced pleasure overload - gorgeous photography, indulgent (in a good way) pacing, a music score that haunted me for weeks, and a ridiculously fun, aching lovestory about growing up or becoming a zombie, choices about which this film doesn't make any judgements.

+++++

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Times & Winds



Three young adolescents, having subconsciously recognized some of the ugly contracts that have bound their families, village and society together, keep their lives meaningful by escaping to each other, nature and work. The rhythmic experience of time, behavior and place gradually make this meditative story so rich and resonant and feeling that all its ambivalence, all of the ways that the photography renders the ugly world beautiful and all the complex and tragic characters feel rewarding and resonant.

++++

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Revolutionary Road


Revolutionary Road follows the rhythms of a married couple who recognizes the hopeless emptiness of their middle class suburban lives, almost chooses a different path, but threats from within and without make the status quo seem both attractive and inevitable. The veneer of the art direction is beautiful and works well with the lush color and light of the cinematography, Kate's performance is layered and outstanding while Leo's feels mostly Big; in typical Hollywood style, the (beautiful) score is too close, the camera sweeps in for closeups too often and the ending drags on to very specific conclusions for about 10 minutes longer than is needed.

+++1/2

Thursday, March 26, 2009

THE CONFESSION


This very thin short short has fine production values but a premise that makes it only worth the shortest youtube treatment, certainly not the full fledged production treatment that it's credits indicate it received. Everything about its execution is competent and engaging; the premise just feels tired.

+

Herb & Dorothy



This documentary tells the story of how Herb, a NYC postal worker and Dorothy, a public librarian, were able to, on their meagre salaries, amass a significant collection of art; ultimately the story is more of a celebration of sacrifice, passion and commitment. The narratives by so many important artists, collectors, exhibitors and agents is perfectly counterbalanced by the utter unpretentious ordinariness of Herb & Dorothy themselves.

++++1/2

(website to find out when it will screen near you, or on PBS. See it!)

Sparrow



Con-men brothers meet their match in a mysterious woman who is followed by a cadre of destructive body guards; mixing visual tropes from the French New Wave with contemporary conventions of the heist film, the movie twists and turns toward a conventional and satisfying conclusion. The music and cinematography are delightful, and in many ways the film is just off-beat enough to win the weary-of-cliche' viewer -- but the character-weakness in one particular character (I don't want to spoil, here) annoyed me to the point of being bumped out of about 15 minutes of the film...

+++1/2

Monday, March 23, 2009

PIG


A fairy tale return of a girl to her childhood neighborhood slowly turns as dark and foreboding as the original Grimm's. The pacing, artistic direction and performances from this film are standouts, it manages to coax a kind of emotional response from the audience that shorts can rarely build, and after building such high stakes, also manages to finish with an ending that both satisfies and feels honest.

+++++

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Good Bye Solo



Within the first minute the film, William has asked Solo to take him somewhere so that he can commit suicide; it's a rich premise, but it unfolds into a far more insightful, beautiful, carefully-earned story about our ability to change ourselves, and our ability to change those around us. In Barhani's third film, he brings his commitments to realistic mise-en-scene, characters and acting to a story that allows two adults to navigate a complex, deepening relationship at a moment when some of their best and worst moments converge; the holy moments in this film manage to be both mythic and mundane and (as always) drenched in ordinary beauty.
+++++

Chop Shop



Ale and Izzi dream and laugh together in the happiest moments, but Bahrani's close examination of their life in Willets Point in the yards of the chopshops never makes their work and hope out to be a drudgery or misery; he invites us to reconsider the meaning of good work, good dreams and what-should-be-enough by looking at lives poised more precariously on the boundary of safety and security. The naturalism of the mise en scene and the acting style are masterfully balanced by sophisticated cinematography and a rigorously cohesive aesthetic sensibility; the spiritual power of this film seems to eminate equally from the subtle narrative intensity and the visual insistence of beauty's stubborn persistence.

+++++

Milk


This Gus Van Sant biopic of the life and achievements of Harvey Milk manages to retain the beautifully gritty realism that defines the mise en scene of most of Van Sant's oevre, but trades in the arty meditative tone from some of his best pictures for the accessible and winning pacing he used in Good Will Hunting. Besides the remarkable music, camerawork, directing and (most of all) performance by lead Sean Penn, I think the most laudable feature of this flick is the way it connects middle mainstream America with a time and a place and a cause that still feels faraway from most of our stripmall inflected, zoning-law-lovin', suburban conformist lives.

++++

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Wrestler



The Wrestler tells an epic story, but about a decidedly un-epic world, a world that feels like it could only be the underbelly of a better world, or maybe an unflinchingly honest look behind the facades that we all arrange to make sense of our worlds. The truth of every performance (in a story about how performances can swallow performers) moves incrementally, inevitably toward a tarnished glory that feels utterly earned and hopelessly true.

++++

Sukiyaki Western Django


This mythic tale of greed, war, love, betrayal and revenge includes shoot-outs and duels shot in visuals superceding the imagination of even visual hyperbolist Zack Snyder (the answer to the question of how a culture steeped in internationally produced Westerns might respond -- in hyperrealistic terms); a breakneck ride through an unforgetable world.This stylized Western spares no moments in numbing any expectation of realism regarding sets, acting styles or violence, and the sooner you are relieved of these mainstream Western conventions, the more you'll enjoy the indulgent spectacle that this film provides.

+++1/2

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie


Bunuel's classic resonates more the longer I tread water in suburban middle age; the understated humor and the poses of the characters and the sets delight throughout. The film, which follows a set of upper class friends through a series of soirees, often thwarted or almost thwarted by the social unrest and ferment that their lives of luxury and oblivion casually ignore and suppress, has been labelled surrealist, but it's tone, timbre and critique are so poignant that it looks more like "reality" than absurdity -- oh wait -- are those two the same thing?

+++++

Friday, February 13, 2009

Ikiru



This story about a late-in-life bureaucrat, who, after finding out that advanced cancer will kill him soon, leans into a quest to make sense of what his life has become. Kurosawa structures a slow, empathy-inducing journey that stays close to Ikiru, then, curiously (and unexpectedly) spends a long lingering third act far from his perspective, but close to the work that he finally accomplished; the narrative is, in this feat, impressive and reflection-inducing
++++1/2

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

TranSylvania


Zingarina, a lost and hopeful French bohemian, travels to Transylvania to find something -- she thinks it's a former, deported boyfriend, it turns out to be much more. The journey she takes transforms her from a hungry malcontent to a satisfied nomad, and the road trip transforms our imagination as incrementally as it overwhelms our expectations with gypsy culture.


++++

Monday, January 12, 2009

Into the Wild



The movie adaptation of this story of a young man's trek into the wilderness & shaking-off-the-shackles-and-hypocrisy-of-society works not only because of the subtle and harmonious performances of actors, cinematographer and musicians (all of which are devastatingly beautiful), but also because the thematic questions manage to stay alive in our hearts throughout the story: isn't it better to live a life of purity? beauty? experience? Given our understanding of the ending and the presence of wise voices like Chris' sister and his final friend, I am amazed at how passionately I still wanted the social experiment to work.

+++++

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Smart People


It's hard to see through lackluster performances and missing chemistry between the romantic leads to a solid, understated structure with richly written characters and worlds; Ellen Page's performance is one of the truest, and if Thomas Haden's character didn't feel so I've-seen-you-do-this-before-at-least-three-times, it might ring true. The wold is nicely constructed, but the directing/editing-pacing is too rhythmic and conventional and the music (though it's a great soundtrack) invades almost every scene, insisting on a particular appropriate response from the viewer.

+++

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Prizewinner of Defiance, OH


For a film so celebrative of heartwarming uplift of a story, Prizewinner manages to maintain a sufficiently distant tone through narrative devices crafted in post-production, a great art design and a great tension between the clear-eyed sullenness of the adolescent narrator daughter and the clear-eyed forgiveness of the title character, played (as ever) unflinchingly frankly and honestly by Julianne Moore. The only difficulty in this story springs from it's divergence from the conventional Hollywood narrative structure -- no one kicks off the story with a goal or an aim of any kind; the result works (and doesn't) in a strange way, we (the audience) feels like the unrelenting (yet understated) tension between "Mother" and "Father" can only be survived - never overcome -- a difficult narrative burden to bear, but it does lock us into an empathetic solidarity with "Mother"'s position.

+++1/2

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Man Push Cart


The ambivalence, pacing, truth-from-the-margins and attentive beauty of this film devastated me. The performance and the script are subtle but the directing and the photography are inspired: beauty drenches this despondent story about the slippery rungs on the ladder of the American Dream; the shape and experience of the exilic Pakistani community and their dreams are always hinted at and insinuated - seemingly as impenetrable for my outsider sensibilities as they must be resonant for those who are the longing insiders.

+++++

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Easy Rider


Like the title, this road trip movie doesn't ask too much of it's viewer for the first half of the movie, the road unspools with minimal character development or plot interruption, and so, on some level, the Major Dramatic Question that kept me engaged was -- do I like this movie? I think I like this movie. Once the riders hit small town texas and a patriotic parade, the story turns and twists in ways I wasn't expecting, and loved all the more because of the unexpected and true way that they played out.

++++1/2