Sunday, June 30, 2013

Showgirls (Paul Verhoeven, 1995)

More belated link posting, this time on my piece for Showgirls, one of my favorite films of the '90s. You can read my article over at Spectrum Culture.

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2013)

"The soft-focus images that introduce Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio directly place attention on the sound to get one’s bearings. It’s a fitting calibration of the senses for a film that tackles the process of audio engineering in film production. The aural collage of whirring reel-to-reel recorders and soft footfalls has an abstract, impressionistic tone that meshes with the hazy, half-legible lines of objects in the cloudy frame. The industrial whiz of the recorders spooling tape suggests a professional sound setting, while the echoing steps ring with loneliness and isolation."

Read the rest of my article here.

I Dood It (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

I was even less taken with Minnelli's second film than I was his first. A project thrown at his feet when its original director was fired, I Dood It simply should have been canceled altogether. An unfunny, incomprehensible mess than nicks from Buster Keaton but has none of that comic's sense of order or timing. An excerpt of my piece:

I Dood It rapidly outpaces its thin material. Adapted, sometimes shot for shot, from Buster Keaton’s final silent, Spite Marriage, the film adds 25 minutes to Keaton’s 80, despite cutting some of the wandering the protagonist gets up to after being rejected by his reluctant bride. That leaves excessive longueurs that even Skelton’s considerable comic talent cannot fill, leaving him to mug at every possible moment to try and keep the audience entertained.

You can read the rest of my article here.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm, 2013)

The hijacking that gives Tobias Lindholm’s new film its title does not even occur on-screen. After being introduced to the crew of a Danish cargo ship bound for India, the audience is then taken to the Copenhagen headquarters of the shipping company that owns the vessel. As the camera is still settling into this second location, an assistant interrupts Peter (Søren Malling) during a client meeting to show him a message. Calmly, the executive excuses himself, walks normally out of the room and, once out of the client’s line of sight, breaks into a sprint that fills in all the unseen details of Somali pirates suddenly seizing the cargo ship to make hefty monetary demands.

Read the rest of the article here.

Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

Minnelli's first film has the theatricality he brought with him from Radio City and would be with him for his whole career, but it lacks much of the cinema. The movement, the actors' projection, the use of sets, it's all a bit too stiff. Furthermore, for all the promise of a film with an all-black cast, Cabin in the Sky eschews some stereotypes only to embrace others, and its morality tale relies on deeply dated misogyny. You can kind of see where Minnelli would go from here, but this is still a long way off even from the dynamics of his third film.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich, 1981)

I've seen They All Laughed twice, and the second time felt as magical as the first even as I could better settle in and appreciate the delicate mastery of Bogdanovich's direction and the actors' perfectly timed performances. It's an exquisite delight of a film, so wistful and breezy that its fraught, tragic behind-the-scenes parallels are crowded out during the movie and blunted into more of a melancholy. Lumped with Heaven's Gate as one of the final nails in New Hollywood's coffin, but also like Heaven's Gate it shows the degree to which that method might still have taken things before blockbusters moved in to take over.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Capsule Reviews: I Used to Be Darker, It Felt Like Love, Man of Steel

I Used to Be Darker (Matt Porterfield, 2013)

Matt Porterfield’s film draws its title from Bill Callahan’s song “Jim Cain,” one of several about his breakup with Joanna Newsom, but the Bill (Ned Oldham) who appears on-screen in the movie is not the focus of the film. Instead, I Used to Be Darker focuses on the reaction of the daughter (Hannah Gross) being affected by her parents’ separation, though it is truly moved by her Northern Irish cousin (Taryn) who has run away across the pond and found more troubles than she’d left behind. By expanding the perspective outward from the myopia of a breakup album, Porterfield trades narcissism for a deeper, more empathetic consideration, one that gives equal weight to everyone’s reactions and also makes the acrimony between wounded parties all the more bitter as witnessed by bystanders. Everyone in the film speaks bluntly of what eats away at them, but that does not preclude moments of evocative impressions, as when Bill tells his soon-to-be-ex (Kim Taylor) how much he hates shaking the hands of those who come to his house to take her instruments away. The initial bustle of edits gives way to long takes that survey each scene as if assessing damage for insurance purposes, and a final embrace shows characters finding comfort with each other only because there is none to be had anywhere else. Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This Is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan, 2013)

I've seen a number of great independent films this year, few better than Chad Hartigan's exceptional, wise-beyond-its-years This Is Martin Bonner. A younger man's view of middle-age that is neither condescending nor bemused, recognizing old age is not be as alien as we might think while also acknowledging that one's worries and preoccupations do shift. It's a beautiful, lived-in movie, matching the older age of its leads with a sedate style that eschews the Dardennes-aping handheld cameras and blotchy sub-impressionism that seem to be so popular at Sundance. It's just good storytelling on a written, visual and acted level, and one of the best of the year's first half.

Read my review over at Movie Mezzanine.

Netflix Instant Picks (6/21/13—6/27/13)

Check out my latest Netflix picks over at Movie Mezzanine.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Netflix Instant Picks (6/14/13—6/20/13)

Belatedly putting up last week's Netflix picks. Check 'em out here.

James Gandolfini (1961—2013)

UPDATE: The piece that I wrote here was republished by, where you can now find a slightly amended version (basically, less references to myself). I'm thrilled to have it posted there and I hope you'll be seeing my byline there more regularly soon.

My Gandolfini tribute can be found here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dirty Wars (Rick Rowley, 2013)

Slightly too focused on Jeremy Scahill himself as the journalist uncovers a massive, unsettling method of covert operations, Dirty Wars nevertheless condenses years of Scahill's arduous reporting legwork into a concise, dramatic thriller that blanches at military overreach as much as it respects the fading art of honest journalism. It provides food for thought for supporters and detractors of the Obama administration, clarifying their response to the War on Terror not as a push toward peace (or a retreat) but an advance of warfare in clandestine terms that should make everyone take pause. Scahill's empathetic facial reactions to horrific stories from interview subjects may be overused, but it's hard not to cheer a journalist so steadfastly doing his job, and as instructive as the film is for uncovering a terrifying military expansion, it is equally instructive in showing the process by which such a thing is credibly pieced together by a diligent reporter.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Student (Darezhan Omirbayev, 2013)

I was not particularly taken with Omirbayev's Student, a wan retelling of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment that reduces the complexities of the prose and its philosophical annihilation and desperate search for grace into a set of thin, anti-capitalist signifiers. Bresson already showed people how to adapt this novel with a spare style, but the chaotic tone underneath appears nowhere in Omirbayev's tidy bore.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Netflix Instant Picks (6/7/13—6/13/13)

Check out this week's Netflix Instant Picks over at Movie Mezzanine.

Monday, June 3, 2013

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2013)

To the Wonder marks the fullest distillation of Terrence Malick’s style even as it violently shakes up the formula like nothing else in his oeuvre from the start. Its opening shots roll out under a blanket of digital snow, lending an immediacy to its central couple’s passionately begun relationship even as it buries some of the romance under heavy image artifacts. Later, back on pristine 35mm stock, Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki bring the same loving aesthetic care to shots of a Sonic Drive-In and a nondescript supermarket that they do to shots of nature. The mundane began to creep into Malick’s frame with The Tree of Life, but even the routines of suburban life were elevated through its overwhelmed child’s perspective, to say nothing of the link of the concrete and uninspiring to the cosmic and ineffable. To the Wonder, however, situates itself firmly within the banality of life, even if the film itself gives over completely to Malick’s cinema of gesture, collage and hushed narration.

The wonder of the title refers to the Merveille of Mont Saint-Michel, the abbey off the coast of Normandy where American Neil (Ben Affleck) and Frenchwoman Marina (Olga Kurylenko) travel after meeting on the former’s European trip. They reach this location not five minutes into the movie, fulfilling the epic ambition of the title through a punny loophole. Where Tree of Life culminated on a beach that elevated reality into the sublime, To the Wonder begins on one, forcing the characters to spend the rest of the film returning to the world. The results make for perhaps Malick’s most harrowing picture, despite laying claim to a corpus in which four of six films contain murder, if not outright war. Violence, pestilence, devastation have always had a place in Malick’s world; Tree of Life even indirectly traced the explosions of The Thin Red Line to a natural history of chaotic destruction and renovation via its intense creation sequence. But To the Wonder rips apart the personal bonds that gives the director’s work its intimacy, pushing farther than the familial strife that tore open holes in his last film and removing (almost) entirely the notes of loving reconciliation and restabilization.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Netflix Instant Picks (5/31/13—6/6/13)

Check out this week's Netflix picks at Movie Mezzanine.

School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003)

One of these days I hope to write a more in-depth appreciation of this film, as well as Jack Black's exemplary performance in it. For now, the piece I wrote for Movie Mezzanine is more of a general recommendation, a reminder of this small but poignant delight to go with the limited release of Before Midnight, which I am waiting for with bated breath. In retrospect, Linklater nails the budding youth of Generation Y with the same observant and honest eye with which he charts Generation X, and I hope he does more movies about millennials in the future.

My full piece is up now at Movie Mezzanine.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (Justin Lin, 2006)

I had such an unexpectedly good time at the most recent Fast and Furious movie, despite some reservations about its overbearing plotting, that I took advantage of some sales to acquire the previous films, three of which I had not seen, and marathoned through them over the last couple of days. Of the ones I'd not previously watched, the best was this third film, an aberration in the franchise that suddenly introduced a whole new cast to go with a whole new location and, most importantly, a whole new style of racing. Justin Lin's first foray into the series falls into the same pitfalls of the earlier movies (the self-parody of its neon underworlds, a diverse set of faces placed under the whitest man the casting people could find), but he charges the series with new energy, meshing his style with the racing like not even Singleton did and making a case for this franchise as one of the most shamelessly giddy in a Hollywood increasingly defined by dour, self-serious blockbusters. It's not great cinema, but it's often damned delightful, and I'll revisit it as much as the last two installments.

My full piece is up at Movie Mezzanine.